The identity of the writer of the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare (1564–1616) has been a matter of debate for nearly two centuries, and like almost everything else in the world of rejected knowledge, the controversy over Shakespeare has been drawn into the realm of secret societies. The literature on the controversy is immense and can only be outlined here; Michell 1996 offers an accessible overview of the debate. See rejected knowledge.
The controversy unfolds from the almost total mismatch between the historical William Shakespeare and the work attributed to him. Shakespeare came from an illiterate working-class family in the rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon. While he may have attended the local grammar school – no one is sure, as the school’s records have not survived – that was the maximum extent of his education. The only surviving specimens of his handwriting are five signatures, three of them on his will, and his children were illiterate; one of them, his daughter Judith, could not even sign her own name. The same will, which specifies Shakespeare’s worldly goods in detail, includes not a single book.
Shakespeare’s documented life offers few clues to help resolve the matter. After a completely undistinguished childhood, he left Stratford in 1587 for a theatre career in London, leaving behind a wife eight years his senior and three young children. In an age full of diarists, satirists, and gossips, he made little impression on his contemporaries. The first reference to him in his new career is a 1592 diatribe by Robert Greene, an unsuccessful writer and dramatist, who describes him as a plagiarist who “is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country.” The year 1595 saw him listed as a comic actor, while court records from 1596 show him dodging taxes and give him an active role in a quarrel among Surrey gangsters, no rare thing at a time when the theatre business had close connections to organized crime.
By 1599 he had risen in the theatre world to the level of managing the Globe Theatre, and held a portion of the lease there until at least 1611. Sometime between 1604 and 1611, however, he retired to Stratford, where public records show him buying property and engaging in petty lawsuits with his neighbors for the remainder of his life. His death in 1616 was a non-event outside of Stratford; this is all the more puzzling because the deaths of other poets and playwrights of the same period were marked by outpourings of verse from their fellow writers.
Meanwhile, starting in 1598, the name William Shakespeare began appearing on the title pages of published plays. Some of them are now considered to be Shakespeare’s, but others are not – The Life of Sir John Old-Castle, The London Prodigall and A Yorkshire Tragedy appeared in print as William Shakespeare’s work, though modern experts insist he had nothing to do with them. Many of the works now attributed to Shakespeare, on the other hand, appeared anonymously or under the names of other authors years earlier, while the First Folio of 1623 included 18 plays that had never before been published and have no traceable connection to Shakespeare other than their appearance there.
The plays themselves are almost impossible to square with the life of their supposed author. They are clearly the work of an extremely well educated mind. Allusions to classical and contemporary literature, much of it unavailable in English in Shakespeare’s time, appear frequently in them, as do legal turns of phrase – the author of the plays apparently had a first-rate knowledge of English law. The plays also frequently use slang unique to Cambridge University, while the Warwickshire dialect of Shakespeare’s hometown is conspicuous by its absence. The plays constantly and accurately echo the habits and perspectives of Elizabethan aristocracy, from courtly manners to the complicated terminology of falconry. Whoever wrote the plays was also well-traveled by the standards of the time; plays such as Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice include detailed, accurate knowledge of north Italian geography and culture, and Love’s Labour’s Lost contains up-to-date gossip from the court of the King of Navarre. None of these things make sense if the plays were written by William Shakespeare, the glover and wool-dealer’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon.
Who did write the plays then? There is no shortage of candidates. The first to be proposed was Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), one of the most brilliant minds of the Elizabethan age. A Cambridge man, a barrister, and a classical scholar fluent in many languages, Bacon came from a family with aristocratic connections. While studying law at Gray’s Inn, he wrote plays that were performed by his fellow-students, and Bacon himself and one of his biographers, John Aubrey, call him a “concealed poet.” In 1597 and 1598 two satirists, Joseph Hall and John Marston, teased Bacon (under a transparent pseudonym) for having written the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which are usually assigned to Shakespeare.
Bacon was notorious in his lifetime as a secretive, cunning man – John Aubrey, who collected accounts from those who knew him, was told that Bacon had “the eie of a viper” – and he had an excellent motive for keeping work as a playwright secret. The public theatres of his time had roughly the same social cachet that soft-core pornography has today, and the discovery that he was responsible for the plays attributed to Shakespeare would have meant the end of his career in politics. Among secret societies, Bacon has long been a favorite candidate, and a number of important occult authors have claimed Bacon’s secret authorship of the Shakespeare canon as part of a far-reaching plan to shape the collective consciousness of the Elizabethan age. See Bacon, Francis.
The most popular candidate nowadays is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550–1604), another intellectual Elizabethan nobleman. Like Bacon, de Vere was educated at Cambridge and studied law, but unlike Bacon he traveled extensively in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. He had personal connections with the Elizabethan theatre – in fact, he supported a theatre company – and was widely considered the best poet among Elizabeth’s courtiers; an anonymous 1589 book The Arte of English Poesie lists him as the foremost of the “notable gentlemen in the court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it” (quoted in Michell 1996, p. 173).
The sonnets attributed to Shakespeare offer the most support to the Oxford claim. They reflect his life and known relationships precisely, and include riddling lines in the Elizabethan style that point straight at him. A good example is Sonnet 76’s line “That every word doth almost tell my name”; “every word,” a near-anagram of “Edward Vere,” does indeed almost tell Oxford’s name. The only drawback to the Oxford claim is that he died in 1604, and plays in the Shakespeare canon kept appearing for several years afterwards, including some of the greatest; King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest, among others, had not yet been staged for the first time at Oxford’s death.
Other candidates include William Stanley, Earl of Derby (1561–1642), Oxford’s son-in-law, who also supported a theatre company, who was reported by a Jesuit spy of the time to be “busyed only in penning commodyes (comedies) for the common players,” and who visited the court of Navarre at the right time to gather the details that appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland (1576–1612), another Cambridge man who traveled in Italy and Denmark; and Christopher Marlowe (1564–93), the first great playwright of the Elizabethan age and an agent for Queen Elizabeth’s intelligence service, whose death under mysterious circumstances might possibly have been faked, leaving him alive to continue writing plays that were published under another author’s name. Many theorists in recent years have argued that the plays and poems were written by two or more people working together. Each of these claims is backed by some evidence, but none can be proven conclusively.
Shakespeare’s own role in all this is the least difficult of the many questions surrounding the origins of the plays and poetry bearing his name. Many entirely orthodox scholars agree that not all the plays in the Shakespeare canon are his own work; collaboration was standard practice in his time, and Titus Andronicus and the three parts of Henry VI are frequently cited as works by other playwrights lightly reworked and edited by the author of the Shakespeare plays. Robert Greene’s 1592 rant about “Shake-scene,” accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism, is not the only accusation. Ben Jonson, who publicly praised Shakespeare to the skies in the foreword to the 1623 First Folio, described him in a satirical epigram of 1616 as a “Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief” who started out as a broker of plays – “At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean/Buy the reversion of old plays” (quoted in Michell 1996) – and ended up putting his own name wholesale on other people’s work.
A plausible case, then, can be made that the works attributed to Shakespeare are actually the work of many different authors. This would account for the notorious variations in quality and tone among the plays, as well as the fact that the works as a whole use a vocabulary twice as large as any other writer in the English language – a likely sign that several people were involved in their creation, since every writer inevitably has a distinctive personal vocabulary. If this theory is correct, what stands behind the writings attributed to Shakespeare is not a single mind but the collected genius of an age, including the works of several noblemen who were perfectly content to have their authorship concealed behind the name of an unscrupulous play broker and actor named William Shakespeare.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006