Historiography about William Shakespeare


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The question whether Shakespeare was the true author of his plays has been of much controversy for the last two centuries. Literary critics and scholars have floated names such as Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Christopher Marlowe as the true writers of Shakespeare’s plays. This controversy arose due to sketchy information of the life of Shakespeare and the disappearance of existing primary sources. Formal records from the Stratford government and the Holy trinity Church record the life of Shakespeare; however, none of them indicate that he was a playwright or actor. The conspiracy theory holds that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays usually accredited to him (McCrea, 2005).  This paper will provide a discussion of whether Shakespeare was the true author of his own play and he really existed.

Sir Francis Bacon emerged as the first most probable person to replace Shakespeare. He was born in 1561 and died in 1621. Bacon was a leading poet of the English Renaissance, meaning he was highly educated, widely traveled, popular philosopher, inventor of scientific mentor and commanded a literary society.  Moreover, he was referred by the name Lord Chancellor and belonged to the Privy Council. When the authorship of Shakespeare was questioned, Delia Bacon (has no relation with Sir Francis Bacon) was the first individual to name Sir Francis Bacon as the alternative author. However, she alleged that Bacon composed his plays in cooperation with other top thinkers of the period such as Edmund Spenser and Sir Walter Raleigh. Today, the argument of literary cooperation is a fairly a non-controversial one as most of Shakespeare’s plays are alleged to have been composed with other playwrights (Green, 1966).

Delia Bacon argues that Sir Francis did not want to reveal his own identity is because of the supposed stigma of print. During that period, it was believed that becoming an author would automatically mean an embarrassing end of the career of aristocratic politicians (Rudman, 2000). However, Delia Bacon continued to assert that the group wanted to remain unidentified as they had a rebellious political agenda that entailed being a part of the gang of frustrated and overpowered politicians who embarked on organizing a popular revolt against the government.  She argued that drama was used as political device during that time.  Delia Bacon and her contemporaries of similar thoughts relied greatly on the idea that the plays included coded messages about politics as well as about their actual writers.  Some opponents have gone as far as arguing that the signature of Bacon in the sort of an intricate code is implanted in a number of Shakespeare’s poems. One academic during this period went as far as producing a huge Cipher wheel that comprised of a 1000-foot fabric that included Shakespeare’s works and that of others for easy decryption and evaluation (Green, 1966).

The most intense skepticism started during the 19th century when many people adored Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Oxford Society that was established in 1957 claimed that Edward de Vere was the one who wrote the Shakespeare’s plays.  They argue that de Vere’s good knowledge of aristocratic culture, his education as well as the structural likenesses between his poems and that found in the writings attributed to Shakespeare. Oxfordian put forth that de Vere was trained as a lawyer and this explains the ease with which the plays deal with court matters. Moreover, he was well-traveled and had actually toured the exact places that are these plays use as settings.  For instance, de Vere was notably abducted by buccaneers within the English Channel and they stripped him naked and left him on the shore of Denmark (Shapiro, 2010).

Supporters of de Vere Shakespeare authorship claim that there are several pieces of evidence in ‘’Hamlet” that prove he is the author of Shakespeare’s play. For instance, they assert that Hamlet uses the phrase ‘’set naked” to describe himself in the nation after he runs into pirates. Furthermore, the characters in ‘’Hamlet” stand for real-life figures in the court of Elizabeth (Rudman, 2000). In this case, then, it means that Queen Gertrude in this play is actually Queen Elizabeth and Polonius is indeed Lord Burghley. This none-too-flattering contrast could have been the reason behind the end of the play’s author. From this interpretation, it would then follow that Ophelia the daughter of Polonius is thus the Anne is the daughter of Lord Burghley. Edward de Vere married Anne, meaning that the Hamlet was actually a hidden Earl of Oxford. Moreover, the play could have been real-life and treasonous. Therefore, it was necessary to conceal the identity of the play’s real writer. Charles Beauclerk, who was a leading Oxfordian and a direct progeny of de Vere argue that when one understand that ‘’Hamlet” was simply an expose of the court of Elizabeth then one understand that it could have been difficult for Shakespeare the Stratford to have composed such a parody and survived to voice the story (Wilson, 2011).

Oxfordian asserts that Queen Elizabeth liked de Vere and this explains why it was necessary to hide him as the author of the plays. Some Oxfordian say that Queen Elizabeth and de Vere sired an illegitimate son while others assert that de Vere was the illegitimate some of Queen Elizabeth. Then de Vere had an incestuous affair with the alleged Virgin Queen, resulting in another illegitimate son. This abnormal family history gave de Vere and his alleged son more power to claim the throne compared to James I, the successor of Elizabeth. These theories tend to conflate the authorship of Shakespeare with the issue of Tudor succession, raising the historical and political stakes. As a result, the issue of whether Shakespeare is the author of his plays turned into a political conspiracy (Shapiro, 2005).

Christopher Marlowe was born in 1564 and died in 1593. He was a literary genius, famous for his plays ‘’Tamburlaine the Great”, ‘’Edward II” and ‘’The Jew of Malta” (Rowse, 1964). He is popularly known as the inventor of blank verse.  Actually, computer comparisons have found word usage and forms to be closely alike in the writing of Shakespeare and Marlowe.  However, it is the biography of Marlowe that likely fueled his supporters as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. It was speculated that Marlowe was a detective for the Crown. Scholars who opposed the Shakespeare authorship of Marlowe argued that he died in 1593 whereas the plays of Shakespeare continued to be written for the next 21 years. However, supporters of Marlowe assert that this argument tends to reinforce their case. They argue that there was an arrest warrant for Marlowe and maybe he could have been executed, prompting him to fake his death. Thus, he could have lived for many years, perhaps on the Continent, and continued writing the plays accredited to Shakespeare (Kuriyama, 2002).

Moreover, skeptics questioned the way Shakespeare could have written with such intellectual intuition and poetic power given he was semi-illiterate.  Official records show that Shakespeare was a man from humble backgrounds who married when young and turn out to be successful in business. Over the last two centuries, various groups have come up that question whether Shakespeare actually wrote the plays. The little-documented evidence that exists as regards Shakespeare include a document of his marriage, a few signatures, a will, two portraits and some papers describing business transactions absolutely unrelated to writing.  The fact that Shakespeare was a devoted businessman meant that he had no time for writing plays. Shakespeare does not say anything about plays in his will. The will entailed a detailed description of his wealthy including his main home, New Place.  There is no record of him going to any school or even a single manuscript that he has written with his own hand (Schoenbaum, 1991).

It is true that no play exists in Shakespeare’s handwriting but that was usual among Jacobean and Elizabethan authors. Moreover, it is most likely that the play ‘’Sir Thomas More” is written in Shakespeare’s handwriting. Around half of plays composed by Shakespeare were published during his lifetime. There is considerable documented evidence which shows that Shakespeare the Stratford was an author.  For example, a poem composed by William Basse stated that Shakespeare was a writer. Moreover, Frances Meares referred to Shakespeare as a writer in his poem ‘’Palladis Tamia”. Furthermore, Meares mention twelve poems composed by Shakespeare such as ‘’Love’s Labor Won” (Wilson, 1993).

History detests a vacuum, particularly when it concerns the lack of documented evidence as regards one of the greatest authors of the world. Despite the fact that scholars desperately looked for records to write out the biography of Shakespeare during the decades following his demise, they never found anything substantial and to make the matters worse, what they came up with was fake. However, it is particularly interesting to mention that for a period of over two centuries following the demise of Shakespeare, nobody even suggested that he was not the actual writer of his plays. Actually, the first individual to make the statement did so as a joke. Samuel Mosheim, a Lutheran intellectual from Pennsylvania, distressed about the theoretical trend of using biographical and historical evidence to question the presence of Christ, contended that the same methodologies may be used to claim that Shakespeare did not exist. But he was all being ironical (Shapiro, 2010).

The suggestion that the biography of Shakespeare did not match with his amazing writings can be said to be pure jealousy on the part of his critics. Shakespeare’s critics could not understand how such untraveled, poorly-educated commoner could have written so extensively on subjects that he had no first-hand information about such as the legal process, life in other nations and court intrigue. It is almost impossible for a person who is lowly educated to write with so much familiarity about the court life. Shakespeare writes with so much ease about aristocratic games including falconry, hunting, bowling, and tennis.  Moreover, Shakespeare wrote about information and stories that had not been previously translated into English. Furthermore, he uses a variety of style that can only be written by a person who is highly educated. Critics of Shakespeare argue that he was too narrow-minded and backward to have composed one of the highest literary masterminds of the world.  Furthermore, the argument holds that even his parents, wife and children were illiterate and hence there is no way a person with such a background could have been an aristocrat (McCrea, 2005).

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Critics of Shakespeare assert that he was the biggest as well as the most successful fraud that practiced on an innocent world.  They argued that the person who wrote the plays had an aristocratic outlook and the fact that Shakespeare was from a humble background rules him out as the true writer of his own plays. During the period that the Shakespeare’s plays were written, it was very difficult for an aristocratic author to write in Jacobean and Elizabethan England. Thus, most of these aristocratic authors used to hire people from modest backgrounds to publish plays on their behalf. Oxfordian put forth that Shakespeare lacked the literary training and education to compose such expressive prose and develop such great characters (Rudman, 2000). Critics argued that if Shakespeare indeed existed, he could have worked on the King James Bible. To make it worse, there is nowhere King James mentioned him.

On the other hand, many Shakespearean scholars argue that Shakespeare was the actual writer of all his plays. They claim that Elizabethan London had many other authors during this period that also had sketchy details and came from humble beginnings, such as bricklayer’s son and Ben Johnson. Yet, no one mentioned that somebody else composed the plays by Ben Johnson. Moreover, Ben Johnson and Shakespeare’s contemporaries never mentioned that Shakespeare was not the true author of his plays yet they knew him very well. Supporters of the authorship of Shakespeare assert that the lack of records as regards the life of Shakespeare cannot mean that he did not exist. They argue that the New Grammar School program of Latin, as well as the classics of Stratford, might have offered a great groundwork for literary playwrights (Shapiro, 2005).

Stratford put forth that the title pages of Shakespeare’s plays display the name Shakespeare and was even mentioned more than twenty-three times in several documents. For example, scholarly texts of the Complete writings such as the ‘’Riverside Shakespeare” and the ‘’Norton Shakespeare” normally mentions Shakespeare in their appendices.  Thus, it can’t be said that there is a lack of documentary evidence rather opponents of Shakespeare argue that in one way these mentions to William Shakespeare do not essentially denote him but to a fictitious name of a different person. However, to assert that he is not mentioned anywhere in these appendices is simply malicious. In addition, there are critics and authors of the period who acknowledge Shakespeare as the writer of plays like ‘’The Comedy of Errors and King John and ‘’The two Gentlemen of Verona” (Wilson, 2011). Moreover, Shakespeare is acknowledged as a stakeholder of King’s Men playhouse company and a Tutor of the Chamber in the court of King James I, a venue whereby his seven plays were performed. Moreover, there is good circumstantial proof of personal interactions in contemporaries who intermingled with Shakespeare as a playwright and an actor.

There is no doubt that Shakespeare was an esteemed man of the theatrical arts who composed plays and performed in some during the end of 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century. However, his status as a dramatic mastermind was only recognized during the 19th century. The acclaim and respect for Shakespeare and his writings was at its highest point during the Romantic era and the Victorian era. According to Kuriyama (2002) new movements in learning and performance rediscovered and embraced Shakespeare’s works during the 20th century. Nowadays, Shakespeare’s plays are very famous and always studied and reinterpreted in plays with diverse artistic and political backgrounds. The genius of plots and character in Shakespeare’s plays are that they portray real humans in a variety of conflicts and emotions that outdo their roots in Elizabeth England (Schoenbaum, S. 1991). The majority of Shakespeare scholars believe that Shakespeare was the author of his own plays. They claim that William Shakespeare was the author of Shakespeare’s plays and was the same person who was born in 1564 in Stratford –upon-Avon and died in 1616 in the same place.  Actually, it can be noted that the official publishers attested to Shakespeare authorship when referring to the publishing of three works of Shakespeare namely the ‘’King Lear”, the ‘’Henry IVF Part 2 and the ‘’Much Ado about Nothing” (Wilson, 1993).


The main themes of the skeptics of Shakespeare as being the true writer of his own plays include a suspicion of disputed texts, the absence of records, the unlikely success of an improbable person and the view that the formal story could only be propagated by general illiteracy and collusion by the establishment. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that Shakespeare was the author of his plays including records of acknowledgment by his contemporaries and friends, and references by many other authors and actors as a writer. Thus, the question of whether Shakespeare is the author of his plays is quite controversial.  It is such a difficult task to try to prove that whether Shakespeare existed or not.

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  1. Green, A. W. 1966. Sir Francis Bacon.  New York.  Twayne Publishers Inc.
  2. Kuriyama, C. B. 2002. Christopher Marlowe a Renaissance Life. Ithaca. Cornell University Press
  3. McCrea, S. 2005. The Case for Shakespeare. Westport. Praeger.
  4. Rowse, A.L. 1964. Christopher Marlowe His Life and Work. Evanston. Harper and Row.
  5. Rudman, A. 2000. Seventeenth- Century Verse and Prose.  Broadview Anthologies of English Literature
  6. Schoenbaum, S. 1991. Shakespeare’s Lives. Oxford. Clarendon Press
  7. Shapiro, J. 2005. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599. Harper Collins Publishers
  8. Shapiro, J.  2010. Contested Will. New York. Simon and Schuster.
  9. Wilson, E. 2011. Living Theatre: A History. Humanities & Social Science
  10. Wilson, I. 1993. Shakespeare: The Evidence. New York. St. Martin’s Griffin.
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