Was there really a William Shakespeare or did somebody else write under this name?
Few would argue that the name of William Shakespeare is one of the biggest names, if not the biggest name, in the annals of literature. Those few that would call that assumption into question do tend to go one step further and say that Shakespeare never wrote a single word attributed to him.
One of the biggest clues for this train of thought is the almost total absence of documentary evidence about the man himself. Removing the plays, sonnets and works from the equation, there is very little evidence to support the existence of Shakespeare. A handful of signatures have survived the ravages of time. There is also a record of his marriage to Anne Hathaway and a single pair of portraits. Business transactions that have nothing to do with writing and the last will and testament covering three whole pages are all the documents that have survived to the modern day. No records of his education have ever come to light and neither has a draft copy of a manuscript handwritten by Shakespeare been produced to bolster the claim that William Shakespeare is the true author of these eternal works.
In the several decades after the death of William Shakespeare, many budding writers of the time targeted Shakespeare’s legacy to establish their own names as an official biographer. The problem with that aim was the distinct lack of solid evidence supporting known facts about his life. Much of what was found was either fraudulent or full of errors. Perhaps it was this very lack of proper substance that once prompted acclaimed American author Mark Twain to famously declare “So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life”.
If he didn’t, then who did?
Edward de Vere
The 17th Earl of Oxford was a courtier poet to Queen Elizabeth I and held the position of Lord Great Chamberlain of England. There isn’t very much evidence to support this claim, but there are some references within the plays that mirror de Vere’s life and some insist that a series of codes contained within the prose that implicate de Vere as the genuine author. This also serves as the plot of the film Anonymous starring Rhys Ifans.
Sir Francis Bacon
First proposed as late as 1856, the main reason people suspect Bacon as the real author of Shakespeare’s works was the similarity to Bacon’s known writing. Some believe that Bacon simply offered advice or tips that were taken to heart and literally. There is no other real evidence to support the claim that Bacon ghost-wrote the plays of Shakespeare.
Another playwright that worked at the same time as Shakespeare. There is every chance that the pair knew one another or interacted personally. Marlowe was reportedly killed in a brawl on 30 May 1593 but followers of Marlowe (Marvolians) insist that this was a false report designed to keep Marlowe out of prison on charges of being an Atheist and Shakespeare was named as author for protection of Marlowe’s legacy.
One of the strongest of all the contenders. The 6th Earl of Derby had his very own theatrical company called Derby’s men and would often sign his name as Will. A frequent traveller around Europe, he would be in a precise position to research many customs and traits particular to many major cities or countries. By marriage to Elizabeth de Vere he was also related to William Cecil – considered by many to be the inspiration of Polonius from Hamlet. Then there are his very initials.
In 1907 a German literary critic called Karl Bleibtreu suggested that the 5th Earl of Rutland was the true author of Shakespeare. Manners did marry the daughter of Philip Sydney and Bleibtreu believed that the pair collaborated to write the complete works of Shakespeare. The one detail that goes against this argument was Manners age. When the first published work was made, Manners was just 16 years of age.
Intriguing idea that was suggested by two American authors several years apart was that no one person was credited with producing the works. Instead, a group under the stewardship, or perhaps guidance, of both Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh. Joseph C Hart first wrote about this idea in a book he published in 1848. Eight years later, Delia Bacon wrote an article in support of this idea.
Many of these candidates are members of the aristocracy and by association would have been perfectly suited to produce work of that calibre. However, there was also the belief at that time that writing plays was a menial task that was below the social standings of the aristocracy. If a peer of the realm really did produce such a dazzling portfolio of work then he would require someone to be the ‘face’ behind the words. Perhaps after publishing several plays or sonnets, the real author was in fear of possible reprisal and in desperation turned to an obscure unknown man and convinced him to accept the plaudits on his behalf. If this is what indeed took place, then this man would surely have to be complicit in the scheme. Chances are he would be much lower in the social hierarchy of the time simply because there cannot be many people of that level that were openly willing to defy someone of a much higher standing. Maybe this unknown man was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon with no appreciable history to speak of. Or perhaps, as some have even gone onto claim, this man was not even English!
Is it possible that during a trip to Europe, say to Italy, that an immigrant was brought back to England and installed as the grandfather of English literature?