Some subjects, in history or in our time, can be a bit like a hornets nest. It shouldn´t be touched or poked, because the risk is that you will be severely stung. But probably against better judgement, I will try to approach the theories existing around the identity of William Shakespeare.
I will yet again stress that I personally hold the very firm belief that William Shakespeare was the man born in Stratford to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, but some people don´t, and I´m curious enough to take a peak at what they actually believe, and why.
Let´s start out with the ones that has been lifted as potential candidates. Some years ago, the film Anonymous came and went, and at the bottom of the plot was the Oxfordian theory which holds as a fact that the real Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
This is seemingly the most popular theory and contains a fair amount of conspiracy theory, namely that records has been falsified to protect the identity of the real author. It was first presented in the 1920 by Thomas Looney, an English writer to whom it was inconceivable that a person further down the social ladder than a nobleman could possibly create the work that William Shakespeare, the son of a glover, did.
There are no links to connect de Vere to the actual work of Shakespeare, and in absence of evidence, that absence has come to in itself be evidence for the Oxfordian following, a so called argument from silence.
The proof for the true identity of Shakespeare, according to Oxfordian theorists, are similarities between the life of Edward de Vere and Shakespeare´s plays, longer poems and sonnets. This would of course mean that a large number of his work would in fact be biographical. One also point out similarities in language, idioms and thought in Shakespeare´s work and surviving letters and poems actually written by de Vere.
In this case, one could on the other hand argue that no man is an island, and that it isn´t that rare to find similarities between two contemporary men without coming to the conclusion that they are one and the same.
That no plays exist under de Vere´s own name is taking as further evidence, as one is of the opinion that he may have been one of several writers suppressed during the 16th and 17th century, one of the “anonymous”. Edward de Vere died in 1604, at which point the world had another 12 plays penned by Shakespeare to look forward to.
This is by Oxfordian’s explained by stating that a dedication to the Sonnets implies that the author was dead previous to the publication, and that the plays written after 1604 are the work of collaborators of de Vere.
In one of the many branches of the Oxford theory one also find a love child of de Vere´s and Elizabeth I who, as an homage to his father’s nom de plume, adopted the stage name William Shakespeare.
Other circumstances considered evidence by the Oxfordian’s are de Vere´s connections to the theatre as he was a known patron, family connections as the dedications of Shakespeare´s plays are to actual or proposed husbands of de Vere´s daughters (the earls of Southampton, Montgomery and Pembroke). On the other hand, there wouldn´t have existed many other authors at the time if a few Oxfordian’s are to be believed as there are those who think de Vere was also Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Philp Sidney, John Lyly, George Peele, George Gascoigne, Raphael Holinshed, Robert Greene, Thomas Phaer, and Arthur Golding. The author and motivational speaker Paul Streitz has even suggested that de Vere is the real man behind King James Bible.
Common for Oxfordian’s is that they disregard evidence found by historians
The theories of another author than the man from Stratford-upon-Avon started in the 19th century, and the first candidate was Sir Francis Bacon, philosopher, essayist and scientist, in the Baconian theory and his reason for writing under a pseudonym should have been that being a playwright would presumably have been that this dubious occupation would have hindered him from achieving success within his other areas.
Here, as in the Oxfordian theory, William Shakespeare himself is mostly a poster boy.
This theory was introduced by Delia Bacon, American writer of plays and short stories who eventually thought she herself was a descendant of Sir Francis (which she wasn´t). The Baconian Theory seems to be a mish-mash of misunderstandings, including the 18th century pamphlet The Learned Pig which has no references to Francis Bacon at all (here I really have to bite my, if not tongue, so the fingers I write with) and research, exposed as fraudulent, conducted by the English clergyman James Wilmot.
During the 19th century it was claimed by some that Bacon through ciphers in the text of the original plays (by Shakespeare) revealed his true identity, and while de Vere was suggested as the father of Elizabeth I´s alleged son, it was now suggested that Francis Bacon himself. The father in this version would be the favourite courtier Robert Dudley, and Robert Devereux was supposedly the younger brother.
All in all, the Baconian theory is about hidden messages, secret codes and a profound contempt for the idea that someone of a humble origin could have a profound talent, and it has rightfully been dismissed by all serious academics.
There is also the Marlovian theory, where someone I find incredibly fascinating in his own right is dragged in to the attempts to prove Shakespeare wasn´t Shakespeare; the playwright Christopher Marlowe.
This theory is based on the assumption that Marlowe was not at all murdered in Deptford in 1593, but change identity and continued writing under the assumed name of William Shakespeare. The assumptions are based on alleged anomalies surrounding Marlowe´s death and the fact Shakespeare´s name was connected with any literary work for the first time two weeks after Marlowe´s death.
The death of Christopher Marlowe was however acknowledged as genuine by 16 jurors at the time, and as he was far from unknown at the time of his passing, it´s highly unlikely that he would have lived on as another person without ever having been exposed. There *are* things surrounding both his life and his death that raise questions, but the possibility that he would have been Shakespeare is not one of them.
The funny thing about this theory, which was initiated in the 1890´s by T.W. White is that it was preceded in the 1820´s by another theory presented by an anonymous writer in The Monthly Review; that Christopher Marlowe might at one point have been a pseudonym used by William Shakespeare.
Finally, the probably least known theory, and also the one to have the least life in it; the Derbyite theory. In this it is suggested that the “real” Shakespeare was William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.
Introduced in the late 19th century, by the archivist James H. Greenstreet, this is a theory that has been favoured by French writers. It is based on the discovery of letters stating that Derby was “penning plays for common players”.
Greenstreet pointed out similarities in Love´s Labour´s Lost and a pageant only held at Derby´s home. Greenstreet however died at the age of 45 before he had the chance to elaborate any further on his theory.
Seven Pillories of Wisdom – David R. Hall
Historical evidence and argument – David P. Henige
Shakespeare´s Fingerprints – Michael Brame, Galina Popova
The Genius of Shakespeare – Jonathan Bate
Hollywood Dishonours the Bard – James Shapiro, New York Times
Forgery on forgery – James Shapiro, Times Literary Supplement
England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy – Michael Dobson & Nicola J. Watson
The Monthly Review, Or, Literary Journal – Ralph Griffiths, G. E. Griffiths