If William Shakespeare didn't write his plays, then who did? Here are five of the proposed candidates, including the man from Stratford himself.
If you’ve ever had a Shakespeare class, then you’ve probably heard about the multiple speculations regarding his true identity. This is mostly because there is so much we don’t know about William Shakespeare. When was he born? Why aren’t there any surviving manuscripts, letters, testimony? How did he know so much about everything if he didn’t go to either Oxford or Cambridge? Well, if we really want to get to the bottom of this, then we should probably go through each and every one of the facts and how each candidate holds up more than two centuries after his death. No one even suggested that the Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of his own plays.
Sir Francis Bacon was a prominent philosopher in Shakespeare's time. But, even if he were a writer, why on earth would he want to conceal his identity? Because of the “stigma of print,” the idea that being a playwright would be somehow be below him as an aristocrat politician? Wrong! There was no such thing as a stigma of print. Not content with this unsubstantiated claim, Baconians argue that Bacon revealed his true identity through coded messages or "ciphers", hidden in the plays. This has obviously led to no conclusive results.
Christopher Marlowe, who had faked his own death
This theory makes some sense, until it doesn’t. Christopher Marlowe was the it dramatist before Shakespeare, but he unfortunately died before his time, possibly in a pub fight. Some observed Marlowe’s hand, here and there, in Shakespeare’s plays and thought it was way more than a coincidence or influence (this would later be proved by technology). So we have some textual evidence, we have a good candidate, but Marlowe died in 1593, many years before Shakespeare’s greatest plays were even written. How to account for this?
Marlovians claim Marlowe was a spy for the Crown, but knew too much. He was therefore about to be arrested – and possibly executed – and they say that he faked his own death, and lived on for years, possibly on the Continent, where he continued to write the plays attributed to Shakespeare. However, what Marlowe’s hand in Shakespeare’s text proves is not that they were the same person but that they collaborated in plays in the same way screenwriters collaborate today. Nothing extraordinary, really.
Not actually a single man but a group of intellectuals forced
Some people thought about a perfect idea: Shakespeare wasn't a man but men who needed to hide behind a pen name for the dangerous activity of writing subversive plays, as if it was some sort of Dead Poets Society who was radicalized. Evidence? There is none.
Edward De Vere, Earl de Oxford, who must have used Shakespeare as his stand-in
Some of the above theories have fallen out of fashion. The Earl of Oxford, though, is currently the strongest of candidates. Supporters of Oxford unsurprisingly draw the "stigma of print" card for him. But wait, there's more. Even within Oxfordians there are those who favor one of two versions. There are those who believe Oxford’s reason to hide his identity was that he and Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, secretly fathered Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton (to whom Shakespeare's narrative poems are dedicated, as if these poems were written from father to son). Others, however, hold that Oxford must have been both the bastard son of Elizabeth and simultaneously her incestuous lover. Again, there's no evidence for this.
William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon
This is what the official version would like us to believe: that William Shakespeare was the son of a glover; that he was born in Stratford-upon Avon, learned to read during his childhood, married and had three children; that he eventually came to London during an early entertainment industry; that it was in this flourishing industry that he performed, wrote, and lived with actors and other dramatists of the London scene; that he became a shareholder of his own theater company and also a lender who occasionally used the law to go after debtors; that after a 20 year career, he retired to Stratford to live his final years; that he managed to buy the title of Sir with the money earned from his writing; that this man died at the age 52 in 1616 and that 7 years later his friends published a volume of his complete works in what is now known as the First Folio, a clear sign of how much his own acquaintances –colleagues, friends and the London theatergoers and readers– must have valued him.
All of this seems simple enough, is there really a reason to doubt it? Not if you use your common sense. But if you’re looking for actual evidence, you’ll find it in all of the documents in which Shakespeare is mentioned by name: a record of baptisms from Stratford, his marriage license to Anne Hathaway, his request for a Coat of Arms, the individual publications of his plays and poems where his name appears, and people who lived at the same time he did who mention him in chronicles or personal diaries.
One of the most important documents is actually the First Folio, published in 1623. This book contains an engraving of Shakespeare, which is the only “image” of the bard that people clearly point to as being his. In addition to that, the Folio features a series of poems in Shakespeare's honor. One Leonard Digges talks about Shakespeare’s “Stratford monument” (in reference to a bust made in Shakespeare’s honor) and a very famous elegy by fellow playwright and frenemy, Ben Jonson, which calls Shakespeare the “sweet Swan of Avon”.
Why weren't there any surviving manuscripts, letters, diaries, scrapbooks containing Shakespeare's happiest memories? This was Elizabethan England, not your parents' drawer where they keep your kindergarten drawings. Did Shakespeare draw upon his own life for his characters? This may be a common resource in recent literature but the concept of autobiography or autofiction was not a concept anyone at the time would grasp, certainly not as well as we do now. How could he know so much? Shakespeare went to grammar school full time. He learned latin and probably had to read way more than you did. This was a booming time for publishing which means many books would have been available to him. He didn't need to go to college, he just needed to stop by his nearest bookstore.
That being said, there should be absolutely no doubt that William Shakespeare, the writer, was the same as William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. I rest my case. What do you think?
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