Beginning about one hundred years after William Shakespeare's death in 1616, when the estimation of the critical value of his works had risen in the popular mind, and the knowledge of Shakespeare's repute had begun to fade, some people began to express doubts about the authorship of the peerless prose and poetry hitherto unquestionably attributed to "William Shakespeare".

Table of contents
1 Shakespeare: the pros and cons
2 Candidates and their champions
3 The poems and Shakespeare's Will
4 Academic authorship debates
5 References
6 External links
7 Orthodox
8 Bacon
9 Oxford
10 Marlowe
11 Other

Shakespeare: the pros and cons

The standard belief, generally accepted from Shakespeare's death until the late 19th century, is that William Shakespeare, the author of the plays, is the same man as one William Shakespere, recorded as living in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The people who question whether William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of Shakespeare's plays are called anti-Stratfordians. They call those who have no such doubts Stratfordians: Stratfordians view the question of authorship as settled, and have no need for a name for themselves. It is the convention of anti-Stratfordians discussing the authorship controversy to refer to the man from Stratford as "Shaksper," and the author of the plays and poems (whoever he may be) as "Shakespeare."

According to standard scholarship, Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He was a poet, a playwright, an actor, part-owner of the Globe Theatre in London, and a member of the favored acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later The King's Men). His father was illiterate.

Anti-Stratfordians, however, believe that Shakspeare was either uneducated or poorly educated. They are doubtful that he could have produced the plays and poems that are critically acclaimed as sublime. The author of the Shakespeare canon must, according to anti-Stratfordians, have been a man of better education and probably noble background, concealed behind a pseudonym in part because the writing of drama for the public stage was considered a disreputable activity for an Elizabethan gentleman.

Shakespeare's education

According to anti-Stratfordians, William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon was a rube whose father was unable to write his own name. Indeed, his wife and his two daughters were also illiterate beyond signing their own names, and, according to anti-Stratfordians, the literacy of Shakspeare himself is in doubt. How, they ask, could he have written the masterpieces of literature that we know as the works of Shakespeare?

Anti-Stratfordians say that we know little of Shakespeare's life, while mainstream scholars point out that we know more about him than we do about any other literary figure of that day, with the exception of Ben Jonson. In his lifetime Shakespeare was referred to specifically by name as a well-known writer at least twenty-three times, and his name also appears on the title pages of fourteen of the fifteen works published during his lifetime. No contemporary document connecting any other person with the plays exists.

Regarding the Shaksper/Shakespeare arguments, the man from Stratford spelled his name in different ways, a mark of illiteracy according to anti-Stratfordians. But in Shakespeare's time there was no standardized orthography: the thought that there was is an anachronism. Early editions of the works of the university-educated Christopher Marlowe spell his name as Marlowe, Marlo, Marlow, Marklin, and Marley.

Anti-Stratfordians point out that there are no records that William Shakespeare of Stratford ever attended school at all, although it is assumed that he was a student in the Stratford Free School (textbooks used at the Stratford Free School are alluded to in the plays). No one contends he attended any university.

Shakespeare colleague Ben Jonson stated that Shakespeare knew "small Latin, and less Greek", which by the standards of the day implies that Shakespeare-the-actor was likely to have studied both at least partially. This supports the argument that he did indeed attend a school.

It is known from information about the land that he owned that the Stratford Shakespeare was a fairly rich man, it is claimed by anti-Stratfordians that he amassed this wealth from his trading career. However at that time it was likely that to be a successful trader would require one to be able to read and write. We also have at least three signatures of his name that are almost universally accepted to be valid.

Candidates and their champions

As early as the eighteenth century doubts about Shakespeare's authorship were expressed, but it was in the nineteenth century, at the height of bardolatry, that the "authorship question" was popularised.


William Henry Smith put forth, in 1856, the first claim that the author of Shakespeare's plays was Sir Francis Bacon, a major scientist, a courtier, a diplomat, an essayist, a historian, and a successful politician, who served as Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), and Lord Chancellor (1618). Smith was later supported by New Haven's Delia Bacon in her book The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays, in which she maintains that Shakespeare was in fact a group of writers including Bacon. Delia Bacon was committed to a mental institution in England, brought back in confinement to Connecticut, and died in Hartford in 1859. Science fiction author, congressman, and Atlantis theorist, Ignatius Donelly's The Great Cryptogram, in which he found encoded messages attributing authorship to Bacon, is also cited as supporting the Bacon theory... encoded messages that, sadly, he alone could discern.

With these theories the floodgates of doubt opened, and a new fad developed: discerning auctorial cryptograms in Shakespeare's works. One of the most vigorous "cryptographers" was Mrs. Ashmead Windle. Elizabeth Wells Gallup examined Bacon's "bi-lateral cipher" (in which two fonts were used as a method of encoding) and announced that Bacon was not only the author of the Shakespearean works but also the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth, the product of a secret marriage. Again, sadly, only Ms. Gallup could reliably distinguish between the "two" fonts.

One of the most convincing arguments against the Baconian theory was delivered in 1957 by William F. Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. William, considered by many to be the greatest cryptologist of all time, and Elizebeth, a noted cryptologist in her own right for her Government work on "rum runners" ciphers, used their knowledge to demonstrate that the encryted messages claimed to have been included in texts from one (or both) of these authors were entirely implausible, and in some cases, impossible. They then went on to use statistical methods to demonstrate just how different the two styles of writing were.

A common example of a word which looks like it must be an encrypted message of some kind is the word honorificabilitudinitatibus, used in Love's Labour Lost. Unfortunately for those seeing more than an unusual word, it had been used (though of course rarely) by other writers before Shakespeare.


The most popular latter-day candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. First proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920, de Vere is today the alternative candidate upon whom the majority of anti-Stratfordians have settled as their candidate for the identity of Shakespeare. Advocates of de Vere as the Shakespeare author are usually referred to as Oxfordians. Oxford died in 1604, perhaps the most convincing argument against Oxford's authorship, as ten of Shakespeare's plays are most likely written after Oxford's death (and several of them, particularly The Tempest, which alludes to a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda, specifically refer to events later than 1604). Oxfordians have argued in his favor that striking similarities between his biography and events in Shakespeare's plays, the acclaim of his contemporaries regarding his talent as a poet and a playwright, his closeness to Queen Elizabeth and Court life, underlined passages in his Bible that correspond to quotations in Shakespeare's plays, and his extensive education and intelligence all support the theory that he was, in fact, the author of the plays and poems conventionally attributed to Shakespeare. Supporters of the standard view would dispute most if not all of these contentions. The supposed connections between Oxford's life and the plots of Shakespeare's plays is conjectural at best, for instance, and the acclaim of Oxford's contemporaries for his poetic and dramatic skill was distinctly modest. Near contemporaries, like John Dryden, indicated that Shakespeare got many details wrong in his depiction of life at court, which means that Oxford's court connections do not support the case for his authorship very strongly. For further details see Oxfordian theory.


Another candidate is the gifted playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe, who would seem to be perfectly qualified to write the works of Shakespeare except for one handicap; he was dead. A case for Marlowe was made as early as 1895, but the creator of the most detailed theory of Marlowe's authorship was Calvin Hoffman, an American journalist, whose book on the subject was published in 1955. According to history, Marlowe had been killed in 1593 by men who had worked for the English secret service, as Marlowe himself had. The theory is that Marlowe's apparent 'patron' Thomas Walsingham, brother of Francis Walsingham who directed the spy network, had Marlowe's death faked as part of some kind of cover-up. Marlowe was then smuggled out of the country and wrote "Shakespeare's" plays and other work. Marlowe's death does indeed appear suspicious, but no part of this scenario can be proven. Besides, Marlowe's work is stylistically and intellectually quite different from Shakespeare's.


Other candidates proposed include, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, Sir Edward Dyer, Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland and at least fifty others, even Queen Elizabeth.

The poems and Shakespeare's Will

Strong arguments exist, in fact, against the claim of any rival author. The opening lines of Sonnet 135 argue strongly against any alternate author, or at least any not named William:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.

It is also hard to understand why the poems (as opposed to the plays), if by a nobleman, would have been published under an assumed name. The writing of poetry was a skill expected of an Elizabethan courtier, and poems like The Rape of Lucrece or Venus and Adonis, long narrative works on classical subjects, were a prestigious and highly respectable form of composition, and in a completely distinct category from popular plays. Also, their timing, originally published after a period when theatres had been closed by an outbreak of
the plague, is more consistent with composition by a professional writer looking for an alternate source of income than by a rich dilettante.

Some anti-Stratfordians are perplexed by William Shakespeare's will. It is long and explicit, listing the possessions of a successful bourgeois in detail, but is remarkable for containing no mention at all of personal papers, manuscripts, or books. (Books were rare and expensive items at the time.) However, it is worth noting that manuscripts of the plays would have been owned by the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a shareholder. And, books are not normally listed separately in wills at this time. They were included among the house-contents. Known wills of other authors often do not mention books either.

Other theories on who, other than the Stratford actor, may have written the works have been proposed. The debate, such as it is, seems far from being resolved, with standard scholarship noting that the theories of ghost authorship began to develop two centuries or more after Shakespeare's death while anti-Stratfordians claim evidence of a "cover-up" during the lifetime of the author. In any case, the debate has gone on for several centuries, and, barring the sudden discovery of new evidence which disposes of the question, it is unlikely to be settled in the near future. As long as people enjoy a mystery, the controversy surrounding the authorship of the works of Shakespeare will flourish.

Academic authorship debates

The above refers to what might be termed the "popular" authorship debate, which revolves around the idea of a single genius responsible for the Shakespearean canon. There is, however, another authorship debate among scholars in the field. This is concerned with the issues of collaboration and revision of plays and also the correct attribution of works.

It is commonly agreed that the Elizabethan theatre was nothing like the modern theatre, but rather more like the modern film business. The scripts of plays were often written under pressure of performance, and many were the product of collaboration, with plays often being rewritten by the actors as well as other writers. Many scholars also argue that the concept of the creative integrity of a single Author, as we know it, didn't exist at the time, and the unscrupulous nature of the Elizabethan book printing 'trade' complicates the attribution of plays further (eg, William Jaggard, who published the First Folio, also published The Passionate Pilgrim by W. Shakespeare, which is mostly the work of other writers).

Certainly, many experts in the field who write about, and edit, Shakespeare for a popular audience are very conservative of the traditional ascriptions and insist that Shakespeare wrote everything in the accepted canon, but it would be wrong to claim that their views represent a consensus. Most of these conservatives concede that even some of Shakespeare's greatest plays, like Hamlet and King Lear, are old plays that Shakespeare revised or at least are stories that Shakespear 'borrowed' from earlier writers. Others believe that Shakespeare's dependence on other writers may have been considerable. There is some reason, of course hotly disputed, to believe that Shakespeare contributed to plays other than those he is traditionally assigned.

Recent work on computer analysis of textual 'style' (eg, word use, word and phrase patterns, etc) has given reason to believe that parts of some early plays ascribed to Shakespeare are actually by other (unknown) writers. And a short poem has been recently assigned to Shakespeare on the same grounds.


  • H. N. Gibson; The Shakespeare Claimants, London 1962. (orthodox, but a good overview)
  • John Michell; Who Wrote Shakespeare? Thames and Hudson, London. ISBN 0-500-28113-0 (paperback 1999) (neutral, slightly tongue-in-cheek)

External links