Shakespeare Or Not Shakespeare? That Is The Question…


William Shakespeare – an English poet and playwright, by many literature pundits regarded as the greatest author in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist. His works, including some collaborations, consist of about 38 plays,154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, two epitaphs on a man named John Combe, one epitaph on Elias James, and several other poems. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. What author wouldn’t dream of such achievements? You can even say several good writers would be quite happy to share all this wealth. However many critics have asked themselves how it was possible that a simple son of a glover from a little backwater place called Stratford-upon-Avon single-handedly transformed the whole English and world literature for centuries if not forever? Wasn’t it in fact a kind of an astounding miracle? william_shakespeare_1609

You might be surprised but many people don’t believe in miracles and don’t believe in the common notion that Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon was the sole or the main author of all these wonderful plays and sonnets; some say he actually didn’t write anything at all because he was…illiterate. Let’s face it, their arguments are interesting to say the least of it.

English: Birth place of William Shakespeare, S...Firstly it is a well-established fact, even among mainstream scholars that we know surprisingly little of Shakespeare’s personal life – the biographical facts are so scant that their lack might indeed indicate an organized attempt to expunge all traces of the real Shakespeare from the historical record and to conceal the true identity of this man. The available data, regarding his life consist of mundane personal details: vital records of his baptism, marriage and death, tax records, lawsuits and real estate transactions. One might wonder, though: if those documents survived, why not the other ones? No personal letters or literary manuscripts written by Shakespeare of Stratford have been found. Did he really attend the Stratford’s grammar school as it is widely thought? There are no records which could support that claim. Was he really an erudite and an autodidact who not only composed beautiful poems and wrote brilliant plays but also had intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court and politics? When, where and from whom did this man who never traveled farther than London from his hometown, and who reputedly spent the years prior to his early marriage in apprenticeship to a butcher, supposedly learn all of this? I have to admit that without everyday press, television or the Internet and a well-connected family as a support the task sounds rather daunting.

Family… here also you can find controversies galore. Shakespeare’s father, John, married Mary Arden, one of the Ardens of Warwickshire, of the local gentry; still both of them signed their names with a mark, and there are no other examples of their writing. This is often used as an indication that Shakespeare was brought up in an illiterate household. At 18, Shakespeare married the pregnant Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. By 21, he had fathered three children. He turns up in the documentary record next at age 28 in London—apparently without his family—working as an actor. He’s later listed as a member of a prominent acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then the King’s Men. His name appears on the title pages of plays printed for popular consumption beginning in his mid-30s. Records show he retired around 1613 and moved back to Stratford, where he died in relative obscurity three years later at 52. In his last will he bequeathed no books to anybody – is it possible he didn’t own one? Not even a copy of his own plays? What’s more, there is no evidence that Shakespeare’s two daughters were literate, save for two signatures by Susanna that appear to be “drawn” instead of written with a practiced hand. His other daughter, Judith, signed a legal document, like her grandparents, with just a mark. Don’t tell me that such an educated, cultured man didn’t care whether his own daughters could read his own poems and plays or indeed, read at all. A man who exhibited a surprising level of intimacy with court politics and culture, foreign countries, and aristocratic sports such as hunting, falconry, tennis, and lawn-bowling never had time and/or money to teach or have his daughters taught ? Would the only literate member of his extended family (his son-in-law) praise, in print, fellow Warwickshire poet Michael Drayton but never write a line acknowledging that his own father-in-law was England’s most accomplished and appreciated poet-dramatist (or even a writer)?

It’s also certainly curious that the creator of such vivid, recognizably human characters as Falstaff, Lear and Hamlet should himself remain as insubstantial as stage smoke. The most detailed description of the man left to us by someone who actually knew him, it seems, is a less-than-incisive sentence from his friend and rival, the playwright Ben Jonson: “He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature.” Hmm…you have to admit that it covers a lot of ground, almost as if Jonson didn’t want to say anything concrete at all. As for Shakespeare’s appearance, none of his contemporaries even bothered to describe it. Tall or short? Thin or chubby? It’s anyone’s guess. You might say that there are at least paintings of Shakespeare face but, unfortunately, here we also hit a snag. Rendered by long-forgotten artists, each of the six painted portraits surfaced only after the playwright’s death, in some cases centuries later, so without any indication that the authors had seen or known Will at all.

Academic Shakespeareans and literary historians rely on documentary evidence in the form of title page attributions, government records such as the Stationers’ Register and the Accounts of the Revels Office, and contemporary testimony from poets, historians, and those players and playwrights who worked with him, as well as modern stylometric studies. These criteria are the same as those used to credit works to other authors and are accepted as the standard contemporary methodology for authorship attribution but do they work as efficiently in the case of an author from a completely different era?

 Let’s take a closer look at the language of Shakespeare and more precisely at the number of words he used. It is definitely a language of an erudite, consisting of a really extensive vocabulary, calculated to be between 17,500 and 29,000 words, some of them invented by the author himself. It is really impressive. For everyday conversational needs, you need about 2500 words to communicate effectively in a wide range of social and practical situations. Most native speakers use more than 3,000 words regularly, irrespective of their level of education, and they have a “passive vocabulary” of 15-20,000 words that they know but don’t often use. Professional writers and translators tend to have an active vocabulary of 20,000 – 30,000 words and a passive vocabulary of 150,000+. Lederer has suggested that a typical English speaker has a vocabulary of between 10,000 and 20,000 words. Mind you we speak here about contemporary people and criteria. In December 2010 a joint Harvard/Google study found the whole English language to contain 1,022,000 words and to expand at the rate of 8,500 words per year so back then the author of Shakespeare plays would be placed really high as a language user. Does it tally with the profile of Shakespeare from Stratford? What would his longhand reveal?
Shakespeare’s six authenticated signatures, shown above, are written in secretary hand, a style of handwriting that vanished by 1700, and he used breviographs to abbreviate his surname in three of them (breviographs being a type of scribal abbreviation in the form of an easily written symbol, character, flourish, or stroke based on a modified letter form). The appearance of Shakespeare’s surviving signatures is often characterized as “an illiterate scrawl”; it can indicate that he was illiterate or barely literate.
What’s more, William Shakespeare did not spell his name as it appears on most Shakespeare title pages. Overall his surname was spelled inconsistently in both literary and non-literary documents, with the most variation observed in those that were written by hand. This can be taken as evidence that he was not the same person who wrote the works, and that the name was used as a pseudonym for the true author, especially that some versions are hyphenated as “Shake-speare” or “Shak-spear”. This hyphen use might be construed to indicate a pseudonym;  anti-Stratfordians  argue that fictional descriptive names (such as “Master Shoe-tie” and “Sir Luckless Woo-all”) and pseudonyms such as “Tom Tell-truth” were often hyphenated in plays to emphasize the fact that they were not real names.

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon for example wanted to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe – imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

If not William Shakespeare from Stratford then who? The Bard’s authorship has been questioned publicly since 1848, when Joseph C. Hart, in his book The Romance of Yachting, said that “Shakespeare merely adapted the works of more educated playwrights, making them popular by adding the occasional crude joke”. Skeptics have suggested more than 70 different candidates but let me focus on the most important ones. We’ll deal with the ladies first. Yes, the ladies – because some anti-Stratfordians claim that there must have been a woman behind Shakespeare.

Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)

The queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603. Sometimes called “The Virgin Queen”, “Gloriana” or “Good Queen Bess”, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty. By the time her formal tutoring ended in 1550, she was one of the best educated women of her generation – she could write English, Latin Italian, French and Greek. By the end of her life, Elizabeth was also reputed to speak Welsh, Cornish, Scottish and Irish in addition to English. Allegedly she could compose poems but she lived too short to be considered the author of Jacobean plays. And would he really have time for all that even if she loved theatre?  What, with the whole kingdom on her red head and those wars, conspiracies and lovers…

Mary Sidney Herbert the second Countess of Pembroke (1561 – 1621)

Like the Queen she was well educated and high-minded, with a talent for poetry. Her education enabled her to translate Petrarch’s “Triumph of Death” and several other European works. She had a keen interest in chemistry and set up a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House, run by Walter Raleigh’s half-brother. She turned Wilton into a “paradise for poets”, known as “The Wilton Circle” which included Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, Sir John Davies and Samuel Daniel, a salon-type literary group sustained by the Countess’s hospitality. Her aim shared with her brother Sir Philip Sidney was to strengthen and classicize the English language. After James I visited her at Wilton in 1603 and was entertained by Shakespeare’s company “The King’s Men”, Mary moved out of Wilton as Dowager Countess and rented homes in London. Though it is certain that the King’s Men attended Wilton, whether William Shakespeare was with them remains unconfirmed. However, it is reported that there was at Wilton at one time, a letter in which the Mary Sidney urged her son to attend Wilton, as “we have the man Shakespeare with us.” If she wrote a play or two she definitely could have paid her way to see it on stage, under a different name of course, and she would be careful to remove any proof, unfortunately.

Sir Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626)


He was a lawyer, philosopher, essayist and scientist so definitely a very educated man. Bacon’s candidacy relies upon historical and literary conjectures, as well as alleged cryptographical revelations. In a letter addressed to John Davies, Bacon closes “so desireing you to bee good to concealed poets”, which according to his supporters is self-referential.Baconians argue that while Bacon outlined both a scientific and moral philosophy in The Advancement of Learning (1605), only the first part was published under his name during his lifetime. They say that his moral philosophy, including a revolutionary politico-philosophic system of government, was concealed in the Shakespeare plays because of its threat to the monarchy. Baconians suggest that the great number of legal allusions in the Shakespeare canon demonstrate the author’s expertise in the law. Bacon became Queen’s Counsel in 1596 and was appointed Attorney General in 1613. Bacon also paid for and helped write speeches for a number of entertainments, including masques and dumbshows, although he is not known to have authored a play. His only attributed verse consists of seven metrical psalters, following Sternhold and Hopkins. Since Bacon was knowledgeable about ciphers, early Baconians suspected that he left his signature encrypted in the Shakespeare canon. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Baconians claimed to have discovered ciphers throughout the works supporting Bacon as the true author. In 1881, Mrs. C. F. Ashwood Windle claimed she had found carefully worked-out jingles in each play that identified Bacon as the author. This sparked a cipher craze. Hull Platt for example argued that the Latin word honorificabilitudinitatibus, found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, can be read as an anagram, yielding Hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“These plays, the offspring of F. Bacon, are preserved for the world.”).

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and Lord Great Chamberlain of England (12 April 1550 – 24 June 1604)

One of the most serious and most popular candidates. Oxford was an important courtier poet, praised as such and as a playwright by George Puttenham and Francis Meres, who included him in a list of the “best for comedy amongst us”. Examples of his poetry survived but none of his theatrical works. Oxfordians believe certain literary allusions indicate that Oxford was one of the most prominent “suppressed” anonymous and/or pseudonymous writers of the day. They also note Oxford’s connections to the London theatre and the contemporary playwrights of Shakespeare’s day, his family connections including the patrons of Shakespeare’s First Folio, his relationships with Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton. He had vast knowledge of Court life and his wide-ranging travels through the locations of Shakespeare’s plays in France and Italy might be another tip. The case for Oxford’s authorship is also based on perceived similarities between Oxford’s biography and events in Shakespeare’s plays (notably Hamlet), sonnets and longer poems; perceived parallels of language, idiom, and thought between Oxford’s letters and the Shakespearean canon; and the discovery of numerous marked passages in Oxford’s Bible that appear in some form in Shakespeare’s plays.

Christopher Marlowe (baptised on 26 February 1564 – 30 May 1593)

Another candidature which has gained a lot of followers. Poet and dramatist Christopher Marlowe was born into the same social class as Shakespeare—his father was a cobbler. Marlowe was the older by only two months, but spent six and a half years at Cambridge University so was far better educated. He pioneered the use of blank verse in Elizabethan drama, and his works are widely accepted as having greatly influenced those of Shakespeare.


The Marlovian theory argues that Marlowe’s documented death on 30 May 1593 was faked. Thomas Walsingham and others are supposed to have arranged the faked death, the main purpose of which was to allow Marlowe to escape trial and almost certain execution on charges of subversive atheism. The theory then argues that Shakespeare was chosen as the front behind whom Marlowe would continue writing his highly successful plays. These claims are founded on inferences derived from the circumstances of his apparent death, stylistic similarities between the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare, and hidden meanings found in the works and associated texts.

Marlovians note that, despite Marlowe and Shakespeare being almost exactly the same age, the first work linked to the name William Shakespeare—Venus and Adonis—was on sale, with his name signed to the dedication, just 13 days after Marlowe’s reported death, having been registered with the Stationers’ Company on 18 April 1593 with no named author. Lists of verbal correspondences between the two canons have also been compiled.

William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1561 – 29 September 1642)

He was first proposed as a candidate in 1891 by James Greenstreet and later supported by Abel Lefranc and others. Greenstreet discovered that a Jesuit spy, George Fenner, reported in 1599 that Derby “is busye in penning commodyes for the common players.” That same year Derby was recorded as financing one of London’s two children’s drama companies, Paul’s Boys; he also had his own company, Derby’s Men, which played multiple times at court in 1600 and 1601.Derby was born three years before Shakespeare and died in 1642, so his lifespan fits the consensus dating of the works. His initials were W. S., and he was known to sign himself “Will”, which qualified him to write the punning “Will” sonnets.Derby travelled in continental Europe in 1582, visiting France and possibly Navarre. Love’s Labour’s Lost is set in Navarre and the play may be based on events that happened there between 1578 and 1584. Derby married Elizabeth de Vere, whose maternal grandfather was William Cecil, thought by some critics to be the basis of the character of Polonius in Hamlet.Still is it really viable proof?

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11 Responses to Shakespeare Or Not Shakespeare? That Is The Question…

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Eh, no I do not wanna! Tell me 😀

  2. I can't tell you YOUR opinion ;p

  3. Blodeuedd says:

    ok..Shakespeare was Shakespeare

  4. Great! Now present your proof! 😀

  5. Kelly says:

    Thank you for the phenomenally interesting mid-afternoon (for my time zone) read! I love the notion that we can't be exactly sure who wrote all those plays.

  6. heidenkind says:

    Well, I'm a Stratfordian, although I think your essay is one of the more convincing arguments I've read for Shakespeare not being Shakespeare. Most of the arguments for him being a noble man or woman smack of classism, as if it's impossible for a teacher from Stradford to know so much or be so talented. Marlowe came from a working-class background, as well. And there are parallels between Shakespeare's work and events in his life, such as the death of his son, Hamlet. While the documentary evidence related to Shakespeare is incomplete and he is a mysterious figure (which I love), there's a complete lack of documentary evidence for any of the proposed alternate Shakespeares being Shakespeare.Incidentally, have you watched Anonymous? That movie is RIDICULOUS. I laffed my butt off watching it. Even if I wasn't a Stratfordian, it would have convinced me to be so. Or read Interred With Their Bones? That book offers an interesting interpretation of the Is-Shakespeare-Shakespeare? debate.

  7. Really, my pleasure! I suppose we will never be 100% sure who the real Shakespeare was.

  8. I admit I started writing my essay as a regular Stratfordian, adopting the contradictory pov just for the heck of it, and ended it thinking that indeed there must have been something fishy with Mr Shakespeare's identity. Funnily enough the most persuasive argument in my case concerned his books or rather the lack of them. I can believe in many things and coincidencies but I simply cannot fathom how it was possible that an author didn't own ONE SINGLE COPY of his own plays and/or poems.Incidentally, have you watched Anonymous? That movie is RIDICULOUS. I laffed my butt off watching it.Yes, I watched that movie not so long ago. I would call it 'Gospel about Shakespeare according to Saint Edward de Vere'. Ridiculous is a good word to sum it up. I especially hated the incest twist – wayyyyy over the top.Or read Interred With Their Bones?My review of this one is scheduled later this month.

  9. heidenkind says:

    Uhg, yeah. Incest "plot twists" are one of my pet peeves. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on Interred!

  10. red witch says:

    Or he purchased one. That occasionally happens when the crown is in need of cash for a new mistress.

  11. Oh yes, mistresses are costly.

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