Did Shakespeare really write all his plays or was it just a convenient pseudonym for a contemporary author or a nobleman to explore new genres of literature in comfortable anonymity?
By Chiranjib Sengupta, HUB Editor
In 1857, American author Delia Salter Bacon published a book called “The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded”.
The title was quite innocuous and the book would have disappeared among the thousands of tomes written across centuries on William Shakespeare, had it not included the bold argument that contemporary essayist and thinker Francis Bacon was the actual author of the great Bard’s plays.
Among the evidence cited by the author was the so-called gibberish word found in “Love’s Labours Lost” – honorificabilitudinitatibus. The key claim by Salter Bacon was that this word was actually an anagram and offered a clever clue into the original authorship of the play. The anagram is supposed to read "Hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi” in Latin, meaning: “These plays born of F. Bacon are preserved for the world.”
However, several scholars came forward to dispute this version, and it was eventually established that “honorificabilitudinitatibus” was indeed a medieval Latin word, used by none other than Dante, and would translate into “the state of being able to achieve honours”.
Cut to 1920, and critic and author J.T. Looney decided to reopen the controversy about Shakespeare’s originality.
In his book “Shakespeare Identified,” he claimed that the real author behind all of Shakespeare’s works was the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere.
A highly educated man who trained as a lawyer and was known to have travelled to many of the places featured in Shakespeare’s plays, De Vere apparently concealed his identity due to the politically provocative nature of the works of ‘Shakespeare’ and the social stigma of a nobleman being identified as a lowly playwright.
The claim led to the establishment of a vocal group of supporters and scholars known as Oxfordians, who continue to battle for and believe in the authenticity of De Vere’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Fighting them on the other side of the ring till today are the so-called Stratfordians – those who believe that the original author of all of Shakespeare’s works was… Shakespeare!
In between 1857 and 1920, there arose a whole gamut of contenders for the honour of having actually written Shakespeare’s works – among them were the Earl of Essex, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Oxford, and even Queen Elizabeth I herself. The debate was not restricted to academic circles only – from the 19th century onwards, a roster of people as famous as Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin added their voice to the chorus of Shakespeare sceptics.
The reasons for such swirling controversy around Shakespeare’s authorship can be traced back to the social milieu of his time and the absence of substantial and accurate documentation.
While most scholars accept that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and spent time acting in London before returning to Stratford and living there until his death in 1616, the actual documentation of the milestones of his life is scarce.
The only documents that record the great playwright’s life and times are a few signatures, records of his marriage to Anne Hathaway and the birth of their children, a three-page will and some business papers. More significantly, no document has been found yet that conclusively prove the composition of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets attributed to him, collectively considered to be the greatest body of work in the history of the English language.
Shakespeare sceptics, therefore, have used his humble origin (his father was a glove maker who later served as an alderman) and education to raise doubts about how he gained such accurate insights into complex legal and political system of the time and intimate knowledge of life in the English court.
After centuries of furious debate – which show no signs of dying down anytime soon – the closest contenders for laying claim to be Shakespeare’s intellectual doppelganger remain Francis Bacon and playwright Christopher Marlowe, along with the Earl of Oxford.
But amid the shrill cacophony of arguments and counter-arguments on who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works, this is what English novelist, biographer and literary critic Margaret Drabble leaves us with in the Oxford Companion to English Literature as the final words to settle the debate: “More than 200 years after Shakespeare died, doubts were raised about the authenticity of his works. The product largely of snobbery… they are best answered by the facts that the monument to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon compares him with Socrates and Virgil, and that Jonson’s verses in the Folio identify the author of that volume as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’. There is a solid body of evidence to show that a real person named William Shakespeare wrote the poems and plays attributed to him and that this very Shakespeare became an actor in the company that produced the plays. No Elizabethan documents support the claim that Shakespeare's plays and poems were written by someone else, or that the actor Shakespeare was not the author Shakespeare. There is also no evidence to suggest that the name used by this man who crafted the plays, sonnets, and poems was a pseudonym.”