Considered by many to be the finest writer in the English language, the poet, and dramatist we know as the Bard of Avon has contributed immeasurably to the culture of the British Isles and beyond.
Who doesn’t remember ploughing through his archaic works as a youngster at school?
Some of us opened those works with dread but for others who persevered, a world of wit, romance, history, tragedy and saucy comedy, opened up.
Prolific and industrious this is a man who wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and contributed over 1700 new words to the English language.
Often quoted, misquoted and emulated he regularly appears in the top ten Britons of all time and occupies a place in the hearts of literature lovers across the world.
But what if all is not as it seems?
A suspicion first mooted in academic circles has increasingly gathered momentum over the last century.
Astonishingly, the William Shakespeare conspiracy theory proposes that the beloved writer was, in fact, a fake and his works were written by another.
Born in 1564 in Warwickshire, England, William Shakespeare seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Glover.
Although his family was not poor, they certainly weren’t wealthy. The young William received a grammar school education which ended in his mid- teens.
By the time he was eighteen, Shakespeare was married and children soon followed.
Destined to spend his life in middle England his talent may have remained undiscovered if it wasn’t for an unfortunate event which took place sometime close to 1592.
Shakespeare is rumored to have been discovered deer poaching on the estate of the local squire. Fleeing to London to escape prosecution he took up work as an actor and playwright.
Almost immediately his plays began to appear on the London stage and in subsequent years he gained fame and some notoriety as one of the foremost writers of his generation.
In 1616, Shakespeare died unexpectedly at the age of 52 leaving behind a large body of work.
Seven years after his death, two of his friends collated and printed his complete works in a collection that became known as the First Folio, thereby protecting his work for posterity.
Doubts About Authorship
Doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare’s work first arose in academic circles in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1848, the American Joseph C Hart put forward the theory that the works of Shakespeare were written, not by one man, but by a group of writers.
In the years that followed the names of a number of other individual writers have been put forward as the true author of Shakespeare’s work.
So why do many academics want to prove that the Bard of Avon, was in fact, a fake? The answer lies in Shakespeare’s background.
Incredibly, some are skeptical that a man of Shakespeare’s relatively humble academic and social background could have the breadth of knowledge and talent to write so prolifically and with such knowledge on so many subjects.
The Oxfordian Theory
The Oxfordian Theory holds that the works traditionally ascribed to William Shakespeare were in fact written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Brought to prominence in a 1920 book by J. Thomas Looney, the theory casts doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship for a number of reasons.
Looney suggested that evidence gleaned from the works proved that the author of the plays was a highly educated, multilingual expert in the law, who had read a wide range of both ancient Greek and Latin texts.
Shakespeare, he pointed out was poorly educated son of a tradesman who came from a dirty and ignorant part of the world, Stratford upon Avon.
He identifies Edward de Vere as the most likely candidate for the true authorship of Shakespeare’s work largely through circumstantial evidence.
A contemporary of Shakespeare, Edward de Vere moved in the same literary circles. Due to the high nature of his birth, it would have been inappropriate for him to earn his living in the common theater world.
The suggestion is that he used William Shakespeare as a front for his own work. Mainstream Shakespearian academics have since suggested that the Oxfordian Theory is based upon nothing but snobbery.
Nevertheless, Oxfordian theorists continue to trawl Shakespeare’s work for cryptic clues to its true authorship while offering historical anomalies as further evidence that Edward de Vere was the true writer.
The Baconian Theory
The Baconian Theory suggests that the philosopher, scientist, and essayist, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays.
Bacon occupied high office and those that support his identity as the true author suggest that like Edward de Vere it would have been impossible for him to reveal himself as a common playwright.
Bacon’s philosophical ideas are said to correspond closely to the works of William Shakespeare but intriguingly the Baconian Theorists suggest strong evidence can also be gleaned from hidden cyphers and clues disguised in the texts.
Supporters of Bacon continue to press his claim as the greatest writer in the English language but once again mainstream Shakespearian academics largely reject the idea he was the true author of Shakespeare’s works.
The Marlovian Theory
A contemporary of William Shakespeare, there is no doubt that Christopher Marlowe was one of the greatest playwrights of the Elizabethan era.
Suspected of being a government spy he was tragically stabbed to death at the age of 29 in Deptford. Conspiracy theorists suggest his death was faked to escape charges of espionage.
Changing his identity, they suggest he went on to write under the nom de plume of William Shakespeare.
Supporting their argument, the theorists point out that the very first published work of William Shakespeare appeared just two weeks after Marlowe’s reported death.
Once again traditional Shakespearian academics would suggest, yes.
They point out that there are differences in style evident in the vocabulary and imagery used by both authors and that Marlowe, unlike Shakespeare, had little talent for comedy.
Nevertheless, the Marlovians continue to believe that Christopher Marlowe faked his own death and offer pictorial and other evidence that not only did he live long after 1593, but that he and William Shakespeare, were one and the same.
The Derbyite Theory
The theory that William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby was the author of Shakespeare’s work was put forward by a group of French writers in the twentieth century.
The theory developed after the archivist James H. Greenstreet discovered a letter by the Jesuit spy George Fenner, in the letter he complained that Derby was busying himself penning plays for the common players, rather than devoting himself to the Catholic cause.
As well as offering evidence that Derby was clearly writing plays at this time, the theorists suggest parts of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ are based upon events which took place at the court of Navarre in 1578, events they suggest Shakespeare would have no knowledge of, but Derby as an aristocrat, would.
Academics argue that this theory is weak and point out that Shakespeare could have received his information from one of many aristocrats he met during his lifetime.
So was this son of a tradesman, really the stunning genius that contributed so much to British culture and the English language?
Or was he a fake, an actor who struck lucky when an aristocrat asked him to take the credit for his work to avoid social embarrassment?
The consensus of most academics is that William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, truly was the greatest writer in the English language.
Despite this, the William Shakespeare conspiracy theory continues, perhaps because so little is known of Shakespeare’s life, perhaps because of academic or social snobbery.
One thing is for sure, unlike most of us, the writer of such wonderful works would have the words to rebut his critics and silence his doubters.
Perhaps he may even suggest that it is the work itself and not its authorship that the world should focus on. In the words of one of his own characters;