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Nelson !

Krista Nelson
Theatre History I
Jeannine Russell
24 November 2014
Shakespeare: the Man (or Men?) Behind the Monologue
William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the best and most influential
playwrights to ever have existed. His plays are produced all over the world, and despite having
been written in the 16th century, their stories are still relatable to modern audiencesstories of
love, loss, betrayal, and manipulation. Even without having ever read one of his plays, most
people hear Shakespeare and can still name at least a title or two. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet,
and Macbeth are among some of the most well-known. But not everyone believes that William
Shakespeare was really the great playwright everyone makes him out to be; in fact, some dont
believe that he ever existed at all. There are many conspiracy theories regarding Shakespeares
life and work, some more plausible than others.
It is presumed that William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564. He was baptized
three days later, and it was customary for parents to baptize their children three days after birth
because of the high infant mortality rate. However, there is no birth certificate or written record
of Shakespeares actual birth, so no one knows for sure when he was born. He resided for much
of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town in England. There are many court records
pertaining to Shakespeares life, along with a record of burial dating April 25, 1616; however,
there are no school records or any documentation of anything between his supposed birth in 1564
and his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 (Dupuy).

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A big part of why so many people question the authorship of Shakespeares works is his
background. According to what we know of his biography, he was from a relatively lower
middle-class familyhis father was a glover and town officialand both of his parents were
presumably illiterate, as they signed their name with a mark rather than an actual signature.
There is also evidence to support the idea that both of Shakespeares daughters were illiterate, as
one of them used a mark as well, and the other appeared to have drawn her signature as though
shed been practicing it a certain way, rather than signing it freely (Hechinger). The town where
Shakespeare was born and lived out his life, Stratford-upon-Avon, is a small market town known
mostly for its slaughter and trade industry. Thus, a lot of people find it improbable that
Shakespeares background matches up with his intelligence, his literary genius, or the amount of
profound skill in his storytelling abilities. Shakespeares works typically portray the upper class
in a more favorable light than the lower class, and he seems to often favor the aristocracy over
the common people (Bedford 164). It seems highly unlikely that someone from a mundane,
middle-class background would have such a disdain for those very people, and would favor the
elite over anyone else.
The lack of documentation regarding Shakespeares education, combined with an
analysis of his few known signatures, leads people to believe that he was either illiterate or
barely literate. In addition to that, the question is often raised as to how Shakespeare had such an
extensive vocabulary (estimated to be between 17,000 and 25,000 words), given that there are no
records of his schooling whatsoever (Twain 51). The will he later left uses very everyday
language and is not poetic at all, pointing again to the notion that Shakespeare was either

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illiterate and had someone pen the will for him, or simply did not write the works that are
attributed to him.
Another large part of why so many people refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote his
own work is the simple fact that there are no personal records of his manuscriptsthat is, no one
can prove that Shakespeare ever had pieces of his own works in his hands at any given time
(Hechinger). As Mark Twain points out in his book, Is Shakespeare Dead?: [the will] mentioned
not a single book. Books were much more precious than swords and silver-gilt bowls and
second-best beds in those days, and when a departing person owned one he gave it a high place
in his will. The will mentioned not a play, not a poem, not an unfinished literary work, not a
scrap of manuscript of any kind. Many poets have died poor, but this is the only one in history
that has died this poor; the others all left literary remains behind. Also a book. Maybe
two (Twain 32). Even when taking into consideration the different time period and the entirely
separate way of record-keeping, it still seems highly unlikely that Shakespeare would have left
books/manuscripts/etc out of his will. It also seems very unlikely that he wouldnt have
possessed any in the first place. In addition to this, Twain points out that only a handful of
records are available with Shakespeares handwriting in tactnone of which include any poems,
sonnets, or bits of plays. All of the evidence of his penmanship is contained within signatures on
court documents and letters, but the closest thing to his actual writing is a diary entry penned
by Shakespeare. Nothing points to any physical evidence of him actually writing any literary
works, plays or otherwise.
As a result of this, many scholars have questioned whether or not Shakespeare actually
wrote the numerous plays and sonnets that have been attributed to him for centuries, and they all

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have their own theories about who actually wrote the enormous collection of works that weve
all come to know. Of course, none of these theories can be proven eithermuch like the JFK
conspiracy theories or the allegations that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landingbut theyre
worth looking into, at the very least. The first of the conspiracy theories, and perhaps the most
popular, is the idea that Shakespeares plays were instead written by his speculated rival
Christopher Marlowe, who wrote Doctor Faustus, among other plays. But there is no solid
evidence for such a rivalry. In fact, as we know from Marlowes seeming inattention to
Shakespeare in most of his works and Shakespeares relatively gentle parodying and implicit
admiration of Marlowe in his works, there is undeniable evidence to the contrary. Even so,
critical tradition has long assumed that Marlowe was Shakespeares chief early professional rival
and that their rivalry was contentious (Logan 5). The evidence to support the Marlovian theory
is a little far-reaching, but makes sense regardless: Marlowes style of writing and Shakespeares
are often very similar, although it could just be that Shakespeare copied from him, as his impact
on Shakespeare is universally acknowledged (Logan 15). For instance, a passage from
Marlowes Jew of Malta reads, But stay! What star shines yonder in the east? The lodestar of
my life, if Abigail! The text, combined with the fact that it is set on a balcony, points very
strongly to the but soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is
the sun! scene from Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet. There are countless examples like this one
that exhibit similarities in writing styles between the two authors, but again, it is extremely
possible that Shakespeares writing was heavily influenced by Marlowes.
Another clue that Marlowe was indeed the Shakespeare weve all come to idolize is the
fact that Shakespeares first play, Venus and Adonis, was accepted with a theatre company just

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thirteen days after Marlowes death. The play did not have an authorship attached at the time,
although it now has Shakespeares name on it. Marlowe was also a playwright and poet prior to
Shakespeares conception as a writer, so if anyone was motivated to continue writing and
publishing works under a false name even after they had presumably died, Marlovian
conspiracists think it would be him. The main issue with the Marlovian theory is the fact that
Marlowe was killed with a knife in a fight in 1593, a fact that is well-known among dramatists
everywhere. The people who believe the Marlovian theory suggest that his death was faked, and
he lived out the rest of his life in exile while writing the plays we now attribute to Shakespeare.
There is plenty of evidence to support Marlowes death, but the only evidence suggesting that it
couldve been faked is a few firsthand accounts of having seen someone resembling Marlowe
walking down the street. Another problem with this theory is that Shakespeare isnt the only
person Marlowe is suggested to have impersonated; others include an Essex spy and the Earl of
Pembroke. There is no real evidence to support the Marlovian theory, but it seems to be the one
that most people recognize or identify with.
In addition to the Marlovian theory, another widely-known idea as to Shakespeares
authorship is that the lawyer and essayist Francis Bacon was either the sole author or a co-author
of Shakespeares works. As with Marlowe, there are a few passages that seem to coincide
Bacon wrote that poetry is nothing else but feigned history, whereas As You Like It contains the
passage, the truest poetry is the most feigning (Logan 78). In 1883, a scholar edited Bacons
Promus and found nearly 4,500 places where he and Shakespeare coincided in their thoughts or
expressions (Logan 79). The other evidence to support this theory is fairly limited, but one
analysis argued that the Latin word honorificabilitudinitatibus, which is used in Loves

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Labours Lost, could be read as an anagramHi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi, or These plays,
the offspring of F. Bacon, are preserved for the world (Platt 63).
There are several more theories as far as Shakespeares authorship is concerned, but none
have received quite the attention of the Marlovian and Baconian concepts. Some other people
who are believed to have played a part in co-authoring Shakespeares plays include: Edward de
Vere (17th Earl of Oxford), Sir Henry Neville, Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke,
and William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby (Cleave et al). There are also some group theories, the
most notable of which was proposed by Delia Bacon in her 1857 book, The Philosophy of the
Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, in which she suggests that Shakespeares plays were written by
a little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians (Bacon 28).
Despite these theories, it is widely accepted that Shakespeare is indeed the sole author of
his plays, and there is quite a bit of substantial evidence to support it. Scholars dispute the claim
that his background couldnt possibly have alluded to his successful writing career by pointing
out that well-known writers Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe came from similar
backgrounds, and are known to have written their works. The fact that there is little information
about his birth and education is questionable, but is a product of Shakespeares time, and many
playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries face the same problem. Other playwrightsagain,
like Jonson and Marlowemay have more documentation for any number of reasons, such as
their familial connections or incidences with the court (Lang 29). In addition, Shakespeare was
recognized as a writer at a few different points in his life, which doesnt necessarily mean that he
wrote his plays and sonnets, but it does mean that he wrote. Another piece of evidence that points
to Shakespeares authorship is the sheer amount of mistakes in his plays. Anyone universally or

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classically educated would not have made the same errors he did; for instance, in Troilus and
Cressida he mistakes the Greek timeline, and he makes any number of classical errors
throughout all of his works (Lang 36). Scholars suggest that Shakespeare may have gotten a
great deal of his vocabulary and literary devices from books, since his limited education or
complete lack thereof would have prevented him from being able to draw from his own
experience in that regard. Shakespeares writings differ from the University Wits (Marlowe,
Green, Nashe, Kyd, etc) because, unlike them, he does not include a lot of extraneous references
to his education and mastery of certain subjects, such as Latin (Logan 92). Analyses of
Shakespeares plays in chronological order state that his works do indeed exhibit a development
in style and a growth over time, which is consistent with that of other artistic
geniuses (Simonton 201). If a number of writers had contributed to Shakespeares works, this
would be much harder to obtain, as it would be a group of people rather than one, allowing for
much less growth stylistically.
The question of Shakespeares authorship was not posed until the 19th century. From his
death in the early 17th century to the early 19th century, he was not regarded as the brilliant
playwright we know him as today (Simonton 195). Instead, he was simply seen as a good
playwright and poet. The early 19th century brought about a change because people were starting
to associate him with genius, and it sparked doubt among several writers and scholars. By the
mid-19th century, people were starting to regard Shakespeare as an intellectual genius rather than
a simply creative one (Lang 66), but since everything that was known about him pointed to him
being uneducated and possibly illiterate, people became suspicious and began looking into other
theories that could help explain the missing piece of the puzzle. Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed

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his discomfort in an 1846 lecture when he said, "The Egyptian verdict of the Shakspeare
Societies comes to mind; that he was a jovial actor and manager. I can not marry this fact to his
verse (Wadsworth 19). The first critics to openly challenge Shakespeares authorship did so
anonymously for fear of backlash, and one of them was the same Delia Bacon who would later
go on to write an entire book on the subject. She became so involved in the debate that she
traveled around trying to gather proof, even going so far as to try and convince someone to open
Francis Bacons coffin (Wadsworth 34).
By the late 19th century, doubt about Shakespeares authorship was widespread, with
everyone from scholars and lawyers to poets and publishers trying to come up with a feasible
solution to the mystery. It wasnt only Shakespeare that was being doubted, either; Homers
Greek epics were being investigated as well as the Bible (although Shakespeare was connected to
that one, as some people thought he had helped to write the King James Bible). This doubt
continued into the 20th century and remains today, with articles still being published arguing for
one candidate or another. The 2011 film Anonymous told the fictional but historically-based story
of Edward de Vere, who used Shakespeare as a mask to save himself and his illegitimate son
with Queen Elizabeth. It was met with harsh criticism by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust,
which sparked yet another debate with the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition.
Everyone has their own ideas and opinions as far as Shakespeares authorship is
concerned. Personally, given all the facts, I think its entirely plausible that William Shakespeare
really is the author of the plays and sonnets we know him for, given that his writing does show
growth over time and a development in style. I dont think the Marlowe theory is probable
because it doesnt make sense to me that he would have wanted to fake his death, but I also dont

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see an enormous overlap between his writing and Shakespeares (having read Doctor Faustus
and Edward II). The Francis Bacon theory seems slightly more reasonable to me, but I still dont
think it has enough evidence to fully support it. I think that Shakespeare could have certainly
written his plays, even taking into consideration his lack of education, because he did draw so
much of his vocabulary and literary terms from bookslike Eugene Ionesco learning English
through a primer, and using that material to write The Bald Soprano. I think that the lack of
documentation regarding Shakespeares birth and life until he was 18 is less evidence that he
didnt write his plays (or even more, didnt exist), and more just a product of the time. It was the
16th century, after all, and they didnt have the same abilities or technologies that we do today.
Regardless of whether he did write them or not, Shakespeares plays and sonnets are some of the
most profoundly inspirational works we will ever have, and they are going to continue standing
the test of time for many more decades, probably centuries, to come.

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Works Cited
Bacon, Delia, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded.
London: Groombridge and Sons, 1857. Print.
Cleave, Julia, Kevin Gilvary, William Leahy, Mark Rylance, and Lisa Wilson. "Who Really
Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?" Candidates. The Shakespearean Authorship Trust, 2011.
Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Dupuy, Paul, Jr. "William Shakspere Documentary Evidence." William Shakspere Documentary
Evidence. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
Hechinger, Paul. "Did Shakespeare Really Write His Plays? A Few Theories Examined." BBC
America. N.p., 24 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.
Jacobus, Lee A. The Bedford Introduction to Drama. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1997. Print.
Lang, Andrew. Shakespeare, Bacon, and the Great Unknown. London, NY: Longmans, Green,
1912. N. pag. Print.
Logan, Robert A. "Marlowe and Shakespeare: Repositioning the Question of Sources and
Influence." Shakespeare's Marlowe: The Influence of Christopher Marlowe on
Shakespeare's Artistry. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007. 4-5. Print.
Platt, Isaac Hull. Bacon Cryptograms in Shake-speare, and Other Studies. Boston: Small,
Maynard, 1905. Print.
Simonton, Dean Keith. Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. New York:
Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Twain, Mark. "Chapter 3." Is Shakespeare Dead?: From My Autobiography. New York: Harper
& Bros., 1909. 32-33. Print.
Wadsworth, Frank W. The Poacher from Stratford; a Partial Account of the Controversy over the
Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays. Berkeley: U of California, 1958. Print.