CONTENT RATING: universal
Did Shakespeare really write, well, Shakespeare? Or is the Swan of Avon a five century old con? Part 3 of this slowburn mini-series looks at our first three possible alternatives and weighs up the evidence. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
David Hilowitz – New Dawn
David Hilowitz – Angle of Light
Kei Engel – Prelude – Bells in Heavy Clouds
Scott Holmes – Postcards
Aaron Dunn – Minuet – Notebook for Anna Magdalena (cropped)
Case S02E05: Slowburn Shakespeare, part 3 of 6 – Cut-out, cipher, monster, spy
In the previous two episodes, we looked at the questions surrounding Shakespearian authorship. To try to summarise all that mess into a single sentence, some people are pretty sure, for whatever reason, that Shakespeare didn’t write any of the canon attributed to him, some are sure he only wrote certain bits, and some are sure that he not only wrote all his own stuff, but that he wrote other stuff besides under different names. And for a bit there we wandered off into a hypothetical about what would happen if someone convincingly attributed Shakespeare’s work to someone else? It was all a bit grim but served to demonstrate that if there are people invested in suppressing the Shakespeare authorship question and protecting the status quo, there are also people invested in proving some brand new answer that catapults them into the highest echelons of eternal fame. For those people, then, the issue isn’t, Did Shakespeare write the works attributed to him? That part of the equation is already answered, and the answer is no. And we’ll get back to how sound that assumption is in due time. Instead, their concern is, if Shakespeare didn’t write some or all of his own work, then who actually did?
At long last, we’ll get started with the first three of the five theories, and we’ll start with… the cut-out.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and, far more than usual, many extra links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.
As you may recall, questions about Shakespeare’s authorship didn’t really surface – at least not publicly – until 1848. Remember that random book on yachting by that New York lawyer, Joseph Hart, that wasn’t actually much about yachting at all? That’s the first documented instance we have so far, though I suspect with effort and time we might unearth earlier ones. And then there was that anonymous 1852 Who Wrote Shakespeare? article published in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. It might have been written be Dr. Robert W. Jameson but I’m yet to see compelling evidence of that. And we’ll also probably never know quite what the readership of those publications were, but this question appearing in print twice in such close succession hints at the fact that this doubt was abroad in the world, at least in conversation, in certain circles. That it should be picked up yet further by two more people only four years later makes it, for me, just too improbable that all four individuals woke up one day, each completely independently struck by the same thunderbolt. Anyway, to join these first two doubters, in 1856, along come Delia Bacon and WH Smith to really light the fire under this new direction of thinking.
Remember also what I said about the way that Elizabethan plays tended to be written – the playwright handing out lines to the actors and then working with them through rehearsals to get it just right? This wasn’t unique either to Shakespeare, or to the time, but it somewhat feeds into a “groupist theory” of authorship which argues that both members of the aristocracy and established Elizabethan playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Nash were unacknowledged co-authors of works attributed to Shakespeare. And one of the earliest “groupists” was… Delia Bacon (McCrea, 2005: 140).
An American teacher and writer based in Boston, Delia argued that the author of Shakespeare’s works was not one man, but many: “a secret cabal of aristocratic poets” (ibid., p. 13). Delia developed friendships with several leading authors at the time, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. They apparently disagreed with her theory, but admired her intellect and interpretation of Shakespeare’s works (Schiff, 2015). Delia travelled from the US to England to write her book about her ideas. Putnam’s Monthly magazine published an article by her entitled William Shakespeare and his Plays; An Enquiry Concerning Them, but this was uniformly ill received, and no surprise. There was a glaring absence of supporting evidence (Holderness, 2013). Further, many of the supposed members of her “secret cabal” were only ever hinted at in her works rather than explicitly named, with the exception of Sir Francis Bacon – we’ll come back to him – and Sir Walter Raleigh. One can hardly wonder at its reception when Delia Bacon couldn’t offer any compelling reasons for why anyone should believe this theory, nor much about who she proposed as alternatives. In fact, others have described Delia Bacon’s work as “unreadable” (Holderness, 2013: 5).
Despite all of this, a friend of Emerson’s, Nathaniel Hawthorne, also read her work and found a publisher for her book, entitled The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare. Though it took her over a decade to write, few bothered to read it except literary scholars and historians, and they ripped it to shreds (Holderness, 2013). With the progression of time and an advancing mental illness, Delia began to believe that evidence about Shakespeare’s authorship would be found in his tomb, and sought permission to open it (Schiff, 2015). This was, unsurprisingly, denied, and as Delia Bacon became increasingly more ill and finally suicidal, she was committed to the Hartford Retreat for the Insane in England. She never returned to the US, passing away in the asylum in 1859 at the age of 48.
Despite Delia Bacon’s general lack of success, interestingly, this first theory did not actually die. In fact, people took the idea itself as possibly having some merit. For whatever reason, Delia Bacon may not have had the capacity to marshal compelling evidence and build a persuasive case, but that didn’t mean that there was no case at all. And so the idea quickly spawned clusters of other, similar theories. Early alternatives included a little gaggle of disappointed politicians – Walter Raleigh as the leader, and others in the group including Francis Bacon, Lord Buckhurst, Edward de Vere, Edmund Spenser, and so on…
Nearly a century later, by the 1930s, the theory of the Seven Shakespeares had arrived. Sounds like a Sherlock Holmes novella. This lucky circle of writers included Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Roger Manners, Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Mary Sidney, and William Stanley. By the 1960s, a new group: the Oxford Syndicate. This was supposedly made up of Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, William Herbert, Roger Manners, and Mary Sidney. Others have suggested Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe. You can see, however, that the same general principle applies – lots of people publishing under one name. And you’ve probably also noticed that in these group theories, some names come up again and again, and we’ll get back to a few of them in a bit.
But what of Shakespeare in all these group theories? Well, in some, he is essentially a ghost. A fiction. As imaginary as any of the characters in his plays. Any relationship to people living or dead is, as one might say, purely coincidental. There is no real person called William Shakespeare, and the glover’s son in Stratford is just a weird, messy coincidence because people can and do have identical names to each other. In other versions of this group theory, William Shakespeare of Stratford is as real as any of the writers, and he is involved, but he is a cut-out. A front man. Sometimes these theories position him as even an occasional actor. Sometimes he manages the group itself. Sometimes he just manages the real-estate and money matters. Whatever the precise details of the particular theory in question, Shakespeare exists, but he isn’t actually doing any of the writing. He is a cut-out who simply gets the credit for it, and others are the secret literary geniuses.
Interestingly, these groupist theories of Shakespearian authorship tend to attract perhaps some of the greatest skepticism and scorn. One question that comes up is, how was the proposed group supposedly operated? Was it like a quilting bee, with all the writers sat around a single table? Or did they each write from different locations and their work was somehow spliced together? Did they each pen individual plays? Maybe some revitalized old projects? Maybe several worked collaboratively in varying combinations on the same projects, but quite how was this managed? In reality, from my perspective, this isn’t all that damning. Just because we can’t be sure how it was done doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened, and plenty of collaborative plays from the era show that this could not only be achieved, it happened all the time.
The key difference, of course, was that unlike openly acknowledged and explicit collaborations, in this case, everyone was supposedly hiding behind this one pen-name – Shakespeare – and that is more difficult to explain. Remember that these celebrated, famous, publicly known people are meant to be meeting up to collaborate on dozens of plays over the course of literally years, all without ever accidentally giving the game away. The Earl of Oxford’s carriage keeps rocking up at odd hours. The Lord Chancellor is in and out with papers in hand. The Countess of Pembroke frequents the place. People have been fascinated by the daily doings of the aristocracy since forever, and with prying eyes everywhere and people ready to gossip at the slightest hint of something interesting, how was it possible to maintain the secret for so long?
Intriguingly, research by physicist – why is it always physicists? – anyway, research from Oxford University physicist David Robert Grimes actually calculates the average length of time one can keep a conspiracy before it ends up being leaked. Assuming perfect conditions, that is, everyone involved keeps absolutely silent about the matter, and any external intrusions like journalists or investigators are successfully repelled, he suggests that if you’re looking to keep a secret for more than a century, then you need to have less than 125 people involved in the plot. That’s not a difficult figure to hit when you consider that this particular conspiracy involved something like forty plays, and spanned almost three decades. After all, there may have been Shakespeare himself, if he existed, and then there were these famous writers, their servants, their friends, wealthy patrons, plus any the theatre workers who might have been floating around – set-makers, costume designers, gophers, and the like. Of course, we can come up with any number of suggestions, explanations, disguises, cloaks, daggers for how the day-to-day concealments might have been handled, but the problem remains a fairly stark one. Collaboration? Sure. Not only believable, extremely common in the day. But secret collaboration for thirty years among with a large group of famous co-conspirators? That is much a more difficult proposition to simply accept (McCrea 2005: 143-144).
And perhaps it was this sheer improbability finally killed off the popularity of this theory (McCrea 2005: 144). That’s interesting in itself because we will end as we start, by coming back to this very same theory, but for now for now, we’ll follow the crowds who are gradually filing out of the door in search of a much simpler theory. If many Shakespeares was just too logistically implausible, wouldn’t it make more sense if it was, instead, just one person.
I call this next theory the Bacon Cipher. That title is far more dramatic than accurate, but ciphers do play a fairly significant role in this story, so I’m going to keep it. And
This theory, like the three that follow, prefers to attribute the Shakespeare canon not to a group, but rather, to just one lucky individual. And no surprise, as my name for the theory might have already insinuated, the true Shakespeare in this case is said to be… Sir Francis Bacon, The First Viscount St Alban, Lord Verulam, I’m honestly not making this stuff up, Attorney General, Queen’s Counsel, Lord Chancellor of England, and nephew to William Cecil, the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Born in 1561, after falling into disgrace later in life, he died in 1626, aged 65, married but with no heirs.
Baconia, as I will call this theory – nobody else calls it that so probably don’t bother searching the internet for it, I don’t know what you might find… Anyway, Baconia arrived in 1856 in the words of Delia Bacon and in the writings of William Henry Smith. That’s right. WH Smith. Seriously. He’s the grandson of the eponymous bookstore owner.
Remember that Delia Bacon started as a sort-of cut-out theorist with her suggestion of a group of Shakespeares, but she wouldn’t really name names, other than to say that they were, “a secret cabal of aristocratic poets”? I want to be in a secret cabal. I wish I knew how it was done. Like, maybe there’s an app these days or something where you can join the secret cabals based on your interests and astrology. Anyway, with time a lot of her focus shifted primarily onto just one candidate, Bacon (Holderness, 2013), and both she and WH Smith essentially end up arguing that Bacon primarily, or solely penned the works of Shakespeare. As I noted about Delia’s work before, though, the theory starts out a little shakily, and the evidence is fairly sketchy and circumstantial.
For instance, a primary Baconia argument rests on the Northumberland transcript, found in 1867 by John Bruce (Friberg, 2016). This is alleged to be the only original text that contains both the names Bacon and William Shakespeare alongside the titles and quotations from the plays. The text also contains what appears to be a reference to Sir Henry Neville. This mixture of factors has been taken as an allusion to links between Bacon, Shakespeare, and Neville, potentially referring to the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.
Hardly the compelling Sherlock-esque clincher, really.
In the quest for more proof, some Baconians searched further, and looked even deeper at the writings, and they seemed to stumble on something new. Sir Francis might just have gone full intrigue, and secreted clues to his authorship in certain Shakespeare texts using codes and ciphers. First hinted at by Delia Bacon but never fully explored by her (Stewart, 2013: 17), the idea was really taken up by Ignatius L. Donnelly in 1880 and it very quickly caught on, as, it seems, lots of ideas in this oeuvre do. I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a link between the way the brain responds to unpredictable reward stimuli like gambling, and the way it responds when we’re hunting for, and think we’re finding hidden cryptographic secrets. That’s just speculation though. Back to the story.
It wasn’t entirely random for Delia Bacon or Donnelly to make this seemingly weird speculation. Sir Francis Bacon had indeed developed what is known as the bilateral cipher. This cipher turns each letter of the alphabet into a five-bit binary string. A, for instance, is 00000. B is 00001. C is 00010. And so on. You then take any text – Hamlet, Macbeth, whatever – ignore what the actual words say, disregard spaces and punctuation, and just use each string of five letters to indicate one binary letter, one after another. To do this, all the normal characters act as zeros, and the alternative font face characters act as ones. Conveniently, the classic line, To be or not to be, that is the question? is thirty-five characters long so we could encipher a seven-letter message in it. Thus, the reader ignores whatever the actual play itself says. Instead, they check the string of characters, five letters at a time, looking for mixed font faces, they identify which binary each string represents, and then they convert those binaries back into their corresponding letters, thus retrieving the original cleartext message.
If this steganographic cipher sounds esoteric and time consuming and frankly bonkers, you’ll be thrilled to know that in 2006, High Court Judge Mr Justice Peter Smith did a much simpler version of the same thing in his judgment on none other than the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code plagiarism case. The Da Vinci Code, for the uninitiated, is all about secret historical codes and codebreaking. By rendering certain letters in italics, Mr Justice Smith spelled out a code that could then be cracked… forgive me for a second as I go full nerd… that could then be cracked by using the Fibonacci sequence as a means of applying a Caeser shift cipher which in turn spelled out a question and its answer. Don’t worry about it. The point here, of course, is that people can and do play these sorts of games, whether for fun or for more serious reasons.
But how would this be done in Shakespeare’s day? Mr Justice Peter Smith merely had to click on the italic button in all the right places, but in the Elizabethan era, we were dealing with mechanical printing presses. There was, however, an interesting issue. This was a time before massive factories churning out reams of identical mass produced goods. It wasn’t unusual for publishers to have sourced their typeface from all over the place, and for batches of that typeface to be mismatched. The result was that it wasn’t uncommon, especially for longer publications, to be printed using a fairly random mixture of faces and weights and styles throughout. This would be so commonplace that mixed fonts wouldn’t have especially caught the eye, and you can see how this presents a perfect opportunity for hiding secret messages in plain sight for the enlightened reader to discover. So far so good.
Back to Ignatius L. Donnelly. By 1888 he’d published The Great Cryptogram, but this book, along with several of Donnelly’s other publications, were ultimately deemed questionable, pseudo-scientific, or outright wrong. Momentum was building, however. Three years later, by 1891, Orville Ward Owen, an American physician, had also written a book on the matter. Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story. And you’d better hang onto your hats because the Da Vinci Code is going to seem tame after this. Owen’s book revealed numerous incredible bombshells. According to him, if one correctly deciphered the Shakespeare canon, it revealed a scandalous Elizabethan history reaching to the very pinnacle of the aristocracy itself. Yes, apparently, Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare, but this trivial detail paled into complete insignificance compared to the rest of the revelations. He was, according to this secret history, the true Tudor heir to the throne. But how was this incredible matter possible? The cipher explained it all: Bacon was the eldest secret lovechild of Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. Dudley and the Queen had married in secret, and had two children: Bacon and Robert Devereux. Notably, Devereux would actually later plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth, er, his own mother, and being a merciful parent, she would promptly have him beheaded for his attitude. But Owen’s book contains still more. Finally, on her deathbed, perhaps full of remorse, the Queen confesses to her marriage and is just about to name Bacon as her successor when her Lord Privy Seal poisons and strangles her, thus squelching his chances at becoming the rightful King. Inconvenient, if true. But there’s even more still. Romeo & Juliet apparently hides within it Bacon’s own romantic fling with the Queen of France. Tell me this isn’t better than any actual Shakespeare you’ve ever read.
How did Own arrive at this rather fantastic insight? He had a cipher wheel, a sort of giant treadmill, and he’d glued onto it innumerable passages from Bacon, Shakespeare, and others. These were collated on the basis of some key word or phrase – this, he said, was the word cipher – and as the treadmill turned, these keywords lit up. Owen also drew on the works normally attributed to Bacon, Shakespeare, Robert Greene, George Peele, Edmund Spenser and Robert Burton, all of which he believed had been written by Bacon. As I’ve said before, I don’t have any issue with Owen asking a question, or even with him starting from a specific candidate like Bacon. I mean, why not. You could include or exclude based on the results. Unfortunately, though, even the most cursory analysis pokes a lot of holes in the method and its application. Not least, deciding that someone has definitely written a bunch of texts before you then go on to analyse if that self-same person has written some other bunch of texts is putting at least half of your conclusions before your analysis, and it entirely messes up your dataset and any results you derive from it. Your known texts can be composed of a whole set of texts whose authorship you’ve just disputed. But that’s just the start of it.
Elizebeth and William Friedman, famous cryptologists of the day, studied the book, and Owen’s keyword method, and I’ll quote this one paragraph from them about it:
Taking all the various sources together, the number of keywords is vast; but this has not prevented some assiduous scholar from counting them, and finding the total to be about 10,650. Owen had plenty to choose from. With these figures, what is surprising is that he does his job so badly. It would seem plausible that there should be a keyword very near, if not actually within, any text that he cared to choose; but again Dr Mann puts a telling argument against him. He finds that ‘in one instance the keyword is 47 lines away from the quotation taken, and in a large number of instances it is not even to be found on the same page’. When a rule becomes so flexible that there is nothing which counts as breaking it, it can no longer be said to be a rule at all. (Friedman & Friedman 1957: 66-67)
Essentially, Owen’s method is nonsense. He allows himself so much latitude in how he supposedly finds and then interprets these bits of the code that he could have created any history, any explanation, any narrative at all really, had he wanted to. Maybe he knew that, and he was just playing to the crowd. Maybe he thought that the glamour of a hidden history buried in a secret cipher for centuries would sell. The events of the era, however, suggest that he genuinely believed in, and was very confident about his work. So much so, that he began hunting for sixty-six lead lined boxes containing original Shakespeare manuscripts hidden in or around Chepstow Castle. When searches of the nearby caves turned up nothing, in 1909 he began excavating the actual bed of the River Wye. Media attention was soon fixed on the matter, and a small army of men were hired to do the digging and shoring up. Unfortunately, however, unless a Roman bridge or a mediaeval cistern count as hidden historical literature, his search otherwise turned up nothing.
Despite this, famous literary figures picked up the theory and ran with it. In the same year that Owens was digging up the Wye, 1909, Mark Twain and his circle declared that it was possible to find the coded signature Francisco Bacono in a sequence of letters from Shakespeare’s famous First Folio (McCrum, 2010), and celebrity can sometimes persuade where science cannot.
But Twain wasn’t the only one to find hidden clues in that First Folio. Remember that poem I read out from it a bit ago? Petter Amundsen, a Norwegian code enthusiast, took this poem to refer to a number, specifically that of TWO. T-W-O can indeed be found written acrostically in the first, third, and fifth lines together (Friberg, 2016). I would add here that you can also find the word WOAH (W-O-A-H) acrostically written using the first letters of the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh lines – mine are all contiguous too, but who am I to judge an acrostic that inexplicably skips across lines. Amundsen has also published works detailing steganographic – that is, hidden – codes and gematria throughout Shakespeare’s works, his epitaph, and the Stratford monument. All taken together, these supposedly point towards Sir Francis Bacon writing the Shakespeare canon alongside Sir Henry Neville (Friberg, 2016). But of course, we have to go full Dan Brown again. These same codes apparently also reveal that Bacon and Neville are Rosicrucians. If you don’t know what Rosicrucians are, to simplify it right down to two words, I’m just going to say, fancy masons? It’s an entire other episode in its own right. Anyway, their membership of this lofty secret learned society is apparently given away by masonic references. As it happens, many of Bacon’s books do bear the watermark RC, bit we’ll also come back to how tricky apparently obvious initials on bits of paper can be later. Anyway, there’s more. Always. Amundsen believes that Shakespeare’s manuscripts will be found alongside the Arc of the Covenant and the Menorah on Oak Island, Nova Scotia.
By this point, you might have started to wonder if at least some of this codebreaking and deciphering is actually just, well, nonsense. After all, the Voynich manuscript has repeatedly demonstrated that if you look hard enough for signal in the noise, your brain will eventually crack and try to give you something. It’s a sort of apophenia. The human tendency to find patterns in chaos. Shapes in clouds. Faces in woodgrain. Secret messages in plays. And if we go back to Owen who really propelled the whole cipher angle along, we find pretty much exactly this problem.
As has happened so often through history, Owen had united a determination that he would find something to a generously loose interpretation of the data and multiplied it with a great reverence for Bacon. This dangerous cocktail meant that Owen ended up discovering something, just as he intended, and it turned out to be just what he was looking for: the story that Bacon was not merely an extraordinary author, but also a super-extraordinary individual. This is not coincidence. It is, simply, confirmation bias. Everything that fed into his story, he likely readily accepted, and anything that contradicted it, he likely disregarded as an exception or a mistake or an aberration or whatever, rather than seeing it as a reflection on his method.
Owens eventually died penniless, bedridden, and deeply regretful that he had sacrificed his reputation to the controversy, but despite warning others not to make his mistake, his assistant Elizabeth Wells Gallup would go on to do more-or-less the same thing anyway. Determined to find secrets in the text, she claimed to be able to identify instances of the bilateral cipher, but when this was put to the test, the supposedly alternative font faces were often indistinguishable from the rest of the text, or there were simply too many alternative fonts and the apparent rules being followed to identify the cipher strings were no more rigorous than Owen’s methods had been. It would be Gallup’s own assistant, the Elizebeth Friedman that I just mentioned a minute ago, who would recognise this for the nonsense that it unfortunately was.
But not all Baconia turned from airy dreams into river-dredging nightmares. In the mid-1590s Bacon had written his personal diary, Promus. I love the idea that he actually gave it a proper title and have no idea what I’d call mine, if I still kept one. Anyway, in 1891, just as Owen’s book on the ciphers was coming out, Mary Fearon Pott also saw in Bacon’s diary evidence that he was the true Shakespeare. And her examples are actually a little more concrete. She noted thematic, linguistic, and literary similarities, the use of certain proverbs and phrases and so forth, between Bacon’s work and those attributed to Shakespeare – so called “parallelisms” (McCrea 2005; see also Stewart, 2013: 16). But here the similarities seem to end. Bacon’s known writings are stylistically very different to the works of Shakespeare. He was a prose writer who penned classic essays, and on that basis, some argue that he simply lacked the skills required to be a great dramatist (Friberg, 2016). But others have countered this by pointing out that, yes, he may have written prose, but it was very poetic, and this is seen as evidence that he possessed the skill to write in two distinctly different styles. And there is other circumstantial support for the theory.
Bacon had a Cambridge education, a background more consistent with the upper-class, well-educated depictions in the plays than that suggested by Shakespeare’s more humble origins. And as I’ve noted, he was Queen Elizabeth I’s legal advisor. The very first Queen’s Counsel, in fact. Baconia therefore suggests that the great number of legal allusions in the Shakespeare canon demonstrate the author’s expertise in the law, which only Bacon could possess given his education and career history. If all this were true, though, why wouldn’t Bacon simply own his work? Well, the argument goes that the Lord Chancellor of England wouldn’t want to be tainted with the reputation of a lowly playwright. An essayist was elite. Learned. Erudite, if rather less generally entertaining. His works were intended for the cultured and noble. By contrast, plays were seen as sop for the unwashed masses. Such direct associations with the low audiences and populist ribaldry of the stage could even hinder Bacon’s career potential. Thus, a pen-name would be very useful. He could still write and even earn if necessary and perhaps even secretly relish in his fame, whilst carefully safeguarding his increasingly influential position.
But there was yet more evidence. In 1910, Sir Edwin Dunning-Lawrence, who we will return to in a minute, managed to take the nonce-word honorificabilitudinitatibus and mangle out some Latin from it that supposedly declared, “These plays F. Bacon’s offspring are preserved for the world.”
And in her 1922 book on ciphers, Natalie Rice Clark declared that simply by laying a cosmological diagram over The Tempest’s epilogue, one could find the craftily hidden message, “I, W. S. Am F. Bacon.”
Yeah. Well. Anyway.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the 1920s, support for Baconia had begun to fade. Having amassed so many associations with disproven fringe conspiracies and questionable methods, the theory started to lose both popularity and momentum. This angle, it seemed, was destined to end up as a mere footnote in only the more esoteric history books. And then, for a brief moment, Baconia was dragged back into the limelight.
Remember that, for a long time, the first questions over Shakespeare’s authorship were dated to the middle of the 1800s and to that book about yachting that really wasn’t about yachting, and then that anonymous journal article? Essentially, no one had much reason to suspect that the doubts pre-dated roughly the 1850s. But then enthusiastic Baconian, Sir Edwin Dunning-Lawrence – remember him from that Latin nonce-word? – anyway, he died in 1914, and fifteen years later, his substantial 17th century archive was donated to the University of London. As would befit a very wealthy Anti-Stratfordian whose candidate of choice was Bacon, his archive was a treasure trove of books and papers by Bacon, Shakespeare, and others, and they were soon on display in the University’s library. Not long after this, in 1932, in amongst the many volumes, a young scholar discovered a manuscript entitled, Some reflections of the life of William Shakespeare, written by one James Corton Cowell. In the manuscript, Cowell gives an account of two lectures by Reverend James Wilmot. These lectures were given in 1805 to the Ipswich Philosophic Society, and they concerned the truth about Shakespeare. Reverend Wilmot was an utterly unremarkable Warwickshire clergyman who lived in Stratford in the 1700s (Meares 2020; Rubenstein 2001), but according to the Reflections manuscript, as early as the 1780s, Wilmot had supposedly started to question whether Shakespeare could have authored the canon ascribed to him. This would be seventy years before the yacht guy put pen to paper about the matter, thus moving the origins of the Shakespeare authorship question back by a considerable margin.
Apparently the good reverend’s concerns were first raised when he couldn’t find a single book or record belonging to Shakespeare, despite apparently searching every old private library within fifty miles of Stratford. Determined to find out the truth, he tried to locate any authentic anecdotes about Shakespeare in or around Stratford, but couldn’t find a single one. Thus, after his extensive study of local history and evidence, by 1781, Reverend Wilmot had made up his mind: Shakespeare could not have authored the works attributed to him. Therefore, he conjectured, Sir Francis Bacon had. However, the story goes, finding himself alone in his suspicion, and afraid of being mocked for harbouring fringe conspiracy theories, Wilmot destroyed all of his findings, leaving only Cowell and his manuscript in possession of the truth.
As seems always to be the case with these things, the manuscript simply vanishes for over a century until it resurfaces in this donated archive in the 1930s. From the moment that this manuscript was discovered to the turn of the millennia, the statements in it were simply accepted, but then in 2002, people began to ask questions. People began to dig through history, looking for records of this James Corton Cowell… the Ipswich Philosophic Society… its president, Arthur Cobbold… But no traces of any of them seemed to exist. Strike one. Historical analyses, too, revealed several anachronisms. Given that the manuscript was supposedly penned anywhere between 1780 and 1805, it mentions facts that were only discovered decades later. Strike two. And then an expert in paper history notes that though the paper does indeed originate from the mid-1790s, it is drawing paper, rather than writing paper – not something that would usually be used for a lengthy work of this nature. Hmm. Sounds like strike three.
Ultimately, most scholars are now satisfied that the Reflections manuscript is a forgery, but even if we accept that, it still raises questions about the identity of the forger, quite when they acted, and what they were hoping to achieve. Durning-Lawrence, who had published at least four books on the Baconian argument, never referred to the document despite its apparently sensational relevance. It may, then, have been secreted into the archive after his death. But why would someone go to all the trouble of sourcing paper from the correct era, finding a real individual who lived at the right time and in the right place, inventing a whole lecture and philosophical society and numerous characters, and then planting the finished article in an archive in the hopes that it would be found, recognised, published about, believed? We will never know, but one fairly believable explanation is that it was a rather elaborate plot to revive the Baconian theory. As I’ve already said, Baconia was losing momentum and adherents, and this may have been a last ditch effort to bring it fully back into mainstream conversation. But the problem for Baconia actually ran deeper than this. People weren’t getting bored of the Shakespeare authorship question. They were getting bored of Bacon, and, they were switching allegiances. There was a new favourite true Shakespeare in town, and his name was…
Edward de Vere. 17th Earl of Oxford. Viscount of Bulbeck. Lord Great Chamberlain. Lyric poet. Court playwright. Champion jouster. And, if I understand Nelson’s book, Monstrous Adversary correctly, he was also a recklessly ambitious, financially illiterate, willfully irresponsible, resentful, antagonistic, dangerous monster. Born in 1550, by the time he died in 1604 in his mid-fifties, he had been involved in numerous clashes with other powerful families that had resulted in multiple killings. He had failed in a list of promises and assurances to those close to him. He had obliterated most of his family fortune, irreparably damaged his reputation and good standing with Queen Elizabeth I, and… there’s more… But even for a podcast about crime, it’s the really grim stuff. You should only go look it up if you have a very high threshold for how awful humans can be, so, consider yourself warned.
Anyway, whatever we know of him now, or knew then but decided to ignore, the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, had become, and some say he still is, the new pet theory in answer to the Shakespeare authorship question. As ever, Oxfordia’s explanation for why he would use a pen-name is the same as for Bacon, and most of the other suggested candidates. To write for commoners, for money, was derisible, but de Vere would probably have felt this even more acutely than Bacon. Small aside – from highest to lowest, the British peerage ranks run thus: Duke at the top, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron at the bottom. Bacon was well-connected and successful, yes, but his titles – First Viscount, First Baron – were both new creations. Bacon’s ascension to the aristocracy was new, his connection tenuous, more derived from service than from ancestry, and he was lower in the peerage pecking order. By contrast, de Vere was an Earl and a Viscount, thus he outranked Bacon, but more than that, he was the 17th Earl of Oxford, and this earldom was the second oldest in the country. In aristocratic terms, Bacon was a newcomer, an upstart, a contemptible social climber even. de Vere was old money and ancient lineage that could be traced back to the Empress Matilda (again, I swear I am not making this up) in 1141. Whatever the opinions on such matters now, historically these details made enormous differences, socially, legally, politically. Such lineage was an extremely potent shield. It could protect its bearer from all manner of consequences, and de Vere really put this to the ultimate test throughout his life, but it couldn’t protect him from everything. Even a wealthy, powerful, obstinate man like de Vere couldn’t just wake up one day, decide to write plays for the masses, and not find himself scornfully derided by his peers and subordinates.
But none of this explains why he has been picked as the new Shakespeare. Well, in 1920, J. Thomas Looney wrote “Shakespeare” Identified, and it contained a list of general and specific features which any candidate author of Shakespeare’s works should apparently have. A psychological and sociological profile, if you will. There’s a lot to it so I’ll try to summarise the main points. From pages 109 to 117, he outlines the general features of Shakespeare’s personality – that he is of recognized, recorded genius; mysterious, enigmatic, and eccentric – “his nature, or his circumstances, or probably both, were not normal”. He is a man apart, aloof, unconventional; not adequately appreciated; an Englishman known for his literary tastes and with an enthusiasm for drama; well-known as a talented lyric poet; and of superior, classical education. But Looney goes further and derives what might be called, very loosely a psycholinguistic profile from his writing. When it came to feudalism, he was, apparently,
not the kind of man we should expect to rise from the lower middle-class population of the towns. (Looney 1920: 121)
Rather, his writings reveal “an intimate personal connection with aristocracy” (1920: 121) and depict lower-class characters in a way which reveals he does not “know the class from within”. Consistent with this, he exhibits familiarity with the royal pastime of hunting, and a negligent attitude towards money. This would also be an expected attitude from poets and writers more concerned with lofty moral issues than such earthly matters (1920: 126-7). Quite amusingly, Looney also thinks that he demonstrates a sympathy for the Lancastrian cause, particularly in Richard II and III (1920: 123). I’ll leave that for the real aficionado of Shakespeare’s works to determine. Anyway, the writer also apparently reveals a general enthusiasm for Italy given how many of the plays are based there (1920: 124), a love of music (1920: 125), sympathies with the Catholic Church as opposed to Puritanism (1920: 130-131), and an interestingly mixed attitude towards women: part affection, part bitter (1920: 129).
So, who fulfils this profile? Who wears such an intriguingly shaped glass slipper? Looney took his profile and began to apply it to a range of candidate authors to see whose foot would fit, so to speak. To make an otherwise extremely long account less long, he compared Venus and Adonis with many other sixteenth-century poets within an anthology. Alas, he doesn’t tell us the anthology, nor how many poems, nor what his criteria for inclusion or exclusion were, but there we go. Using his secret method, he created a shortlist of those which he felt were “written in the form of stanza identical with that employed by Shakespeare” (1920: 137). After that he re-read those he had identified, discarded any he felt were not similar enough, and ended up with two: one which was anonymous, and one which was by Edward de Vere: Golden Treasury.
Thus armed, Looney got researching, and he found an article written by Sir Sidney Lee. Lee was, incidentally, a Stratfordian – that is, someone who does not question the authorship of Shakespeare. Anyway, in his article, Lee describes de Vere as having “a violent and perverse temper”, an “eccentric taste in dress”, a “genuine taste in music”, and being a well-recognised “courtier poet”. We also have the unsurprising and in fact rather necessary credential that throughout his lifetime, de Vere was praised as a poet and a playwright.
You can see where this is going. If you want to read Looney’s lengthy explanation about how Edward de Vere fulfils his whole profile, including the general and the specific conditions that I listed a minute ago, read his book from Chapter IV, p144 onwards. Or you can just skip to the more concise, bulleted list is on p147.
In some ways, I don’t completely hate this effort. I mean, Looney started out with the question and seems to have recognized that he couldn’t just identify a possible real Shakespeare out of the whole world, so he’s made attempts to create a closed set. A shortlist of prime suspects. Whatever you want to call it. And then he’s gone back to the language itself and run some comparisons and come up with his final two candidates. Of course only one could be studied, which begs the question, what about the anonymous author? The problem with the whole thing, of course, is that you can have a reasonable idea, and then absolutely murder the execution of it. How did he arrive at this profile? We only have glimpses of evidence. What counted and what was discounted? Shakespeare is celebrated for being able to really get into characters, so how robust is it to guess at who he was when he’s so busy being someone else in his plays? Why use the poem Venus and Adonis? Shakespeare was at least as famous for being a playwright – perhaps even more famous for that, so why not a play? Multiple other plays? Also, we don’t know what his whole longlist was – that anthology of poetry that he drew from. What was it? Who did it not include? And we don’t know why people were struck off the longlist. What was the basis for exclusion? How much did people have to deviate from Looney’s profile? Were any other factors outside the profile taken into account? There are dozens of questions besides but you get the point. There’s a lot left unsaid here.
Regardless, in 1921, just a year after the book’s publication, Looney and several others created The Shakespeare Fellowship, an organization which promoted Edward de Vere (“Oxford”) as the real Shakespeare. This, by the way, is now known as the Shakespearean Authorship Trust, that I mentioned way back. The popularity of Oxfordia has waxed and waned over time with the publication of various Oxfordian books and Stratfordian critiques, but interest was somewhat renewed in 2011 after the release of the German-British period drama Anonymous. Written by John Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich, the film is a fictionalized portrayal of the life of Edward de Vere, and it strongly intimates that he was the real author of Shakespeare’s works.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, though, the Oxfordia methodology usually doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. I’ve already pointed out some issues with Looney’s treatise on the subject, but there are other problems besides. The overall sample of de Vere’s writings is necessarily small – it barely totals few thousand words altogether, which is tiny when compared with the millions of words to be found in the Shakespeare canon. Additionally, de Vere may have been venerated as a poet and a playwright in his lifetime, but only the poetry remains. We have no plays. These factors don’t make analysis impossible, but they certainly does circumscribe what can be done, and they absolutely should mitigate how confident we can be in any results we might arrive at.
Further, as we’ve seen, Oxfordia often leans heavily on non-linguistic circumstantial evidence (McCrea, 2005). For instance, Oxfordians will often draw on what I call the Batman principle: de Vere stopped publishing poetry under his name shortly after the first works attributed to Shakespeare appeared. You can see the argument here – for the most part, both names don’t appear in print at the same time because de Vere has put on his Shakespeare bat-cape and is now in disguise.
De Vere also spent a considerable amount of time in Italy and this, Oxfordia argues, accounts for the number of plays set there. Further, they argue, it’s knowledge that Shakespeare couldn’t have had. However, Shakespeare’s plays actually get many details of Italian life wrong, including laws and urban geography. In fact, it is now conventionally believed that much of the information in the plays was probably derived from John Florio. Some of the idioms used can be traced back to some of the dialogue in Florio’s works.
Another piece of evidence put forward by Oxfordia is a bible. Dating back to 1579, this Geneva Bible supposedly belonged to Oxford, and it has around a thousand underlined sections, with a small handful of single-word notes. In 1992 Mark Anderson and Roger Stritmatter conducted a detailed examination of these annotations, and from this they determined that more than a quarter of the marked passages turn up as direct references in Shakespeare’s plays.
Honestly though, I’m not even going to pretend like I find this compelling. I have a reasonably strong sense that if you underlined ten sentences at random in, say, Pride & Prejudice, I bet with a little effort you could find supposedly direct links to them all in the transcripts for this podcast. And underlining is not exactly a blood-stained fingerprint. What would the evidence be that de Vere added the annotations in the first place? I have a few very old books that other people have annotated, and I honestly kind of hate them for it. Who writes in biro in a two hundred year old book? But just because that poor, defaced volume has now come into my possession, that doesn’t make their moment of unbelievable vandalism mine. And it seems that others were of a similar mind. David Kathman published his own evidence, arguing that there is no clear correlation between the Geneva annotations and Shakespeare’s biblical references. For instance, annotations in the bible focus on 1 Samuel to 1 Kings, but Shakespeare barely used them. Likewise, the underlining marks out over a thousand verses, but Shakespeare alludes to at least two thousand verses in his works, and, as I’ve already mentioned, the overlap between the Geneva underlining and Shakespeare’s actual references is surprisingly small.
What other evidence is there? Well, Oxfordia makes a lot of his many links to the theatre and the writings of Shakespeare. In 1583, Oxford became the leaseholder of the first Blackfriars theatre in London. This had a lot of connections to Shakespeare. Fair enough, but again, it’s very circumstantial. In 1567, Oxford was admitted to Gray’s Inn. This is one of the Inns of Court, and the clinching piece of evidence here? In Henry IV, Part II, Justice Shallow reminisces about it. Side note: I don’t find this remotely compelling either. A fictional character mentioning a landmark that was already famous during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I is pretty tenuous for an authorship argument.
The rest of the evidence is even less impressive still. Oxford also had ties to the river Avon and a town called Stratford. That would apparently explain him being called the Bard of Stratford and the Swan of Avon. Some Oxfordians have also taken the name Swan of Avon to refer to the Avon River flowing through Wiltshire where Mary Sidney lived. Sidney in turn had associations with Oxford. Some believed that she looked after his works once he died (Peer & Jacobi, 2001). For me, that all sounds like that tenuous link game you play where someone gives you two entirely disconnected concepts and through a series of leaps you have to make them connect.
Another detail put forward sometimes is that in 1586 Queen Elizabeth I began giving Oxford an annuity of £1,000, and he continued to receive this until his death. The details are not clear on why he received this, but even a cursory glance at his financial affairs would probably suggest that it was because he was haemorrhaging money and drowning in debt. Oxfordia, though, posits that this can be explained by his secret playwright double life. The annuity was used to pay Shakespeare for holding the pseudonym. The evidence for this? One Reverend Dr John Ward, and a 1662 diary entry from him, stating that Shakespeare wrote two plays a year and spent at the rate of £1,000 a year. There’s circumstantial, and then there’s that.
Anyway, all of this supposition hits a rather large stumbling block known as linear time. Chronology. The awkward inconvenience that events obstinately continue to happen one after another, in rigid sequential order, and that we haven’t yet mastered a way of organising matters differently. What am I talking about? Well, de Vere had the misfortune to die in 1604, twelve years before Shakespeare. Unfortunately, twelve plays appear to have been written after this. Of course, one might think that this would be rather awkward for the Oxfordian argument but some of them actually pounce on it as further proof. It is, they suggest, an elaborate cover-up. By continuing to publish pre-written plays after his death, it removes suspicion from de Vere because very obviously dead men can’t write. And the reason that so many of the late plays show evidence of revision and collaboration is because they were completed by other playwrights after Oxford’s death. Thus, this clever ploy to hide his authorship therefore proves that de Vere… er… was the author.
Anyway, last but not least, if we accept that no documentary evidence connects the Stratford glover’s son to the plays of Shakespeare, then we have to accept that the exact same issue is in play here: no documentary evidence connects Oxford to the plays either.
Okay, so de Vere is, at least as far as this all suggests, not a particularly compelling Shakespeare. The documentary evidence is missing, the plays are gone, the timing is all messed up, and the little evidence that can be collected together is pretty much all circumstantial or problematic in some way.
Is there another, better candidate? Someone gifted in the art of disguise? Capable of maintaining a persona? Professionally trained to pass amongst us, his real identity unrecognised?
Well, what about… a spy.
Who is this international man of mystery? He is…
…coming up in the next episode.
End of part 3 of 6.
If you’re interested in more Shakespeare content, from linguists, at Lancaster, then search the internet for Future Learn, Shakespeare’s Language. This free online course is all about both revealing meanings and exploring myths, and as a bonus, you get introduced to corpus-based methods for analysing Shakespeare’s language. What’s not to love!
The episode was researched and fact-checked by my research assistant, Rebecca Jagodzinski, and my intern, Debbi Tomkinson, and it was narrated and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. I am also extremely grateful for all the input I’ve had from the renowned Shakespeare authority, Jonathan Culpeper – creator of that online course I mentioned – who has patiently entertained this whole miniseries idea from inception to gruesome, bloody execution.
However, this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior efforts of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.
Credits, sources, and more
See Casenotes for S02E03 Slowburn Shakespeare, part 1 of 6 – Who Wrote Shakespeare?