William Shakespeare wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It wasn’t the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe, or any of the other candidates sometimes suggested. But how can we be so sure?
We have the accounts of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. His rivals, detractors, friends and colleagues had no doubt. Ben Jonson wrote in his published diaries about his criticisms of the plays - right alongside his love and admiration for his friend Shakespeare, their author. Nobody questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his own work for centuries. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that a brilliant but eccentric woman called Delia Bacon wrote a book in which she heavily hinted that the true author was Sir Francis Bacon. She convinced a few people – including Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud (who never believed anything silly, of course). The early-to-mid 19th century was an age still influenced by the Romantics, who had invented the idea of the Artist as a lone creator, driven by the spirit, scribbling away in a garret, listening to the Muse whispering in his ear and writing for the sake of Art itself. William Shakespeare – a professional actor, jobbing hack, and sharer in the going concern that was the Globe Theatre – didn’t fit this Romantic ideal. Delia Bacon preferred her more upper-class, better-educated, self-consciously intellectual namesake. Trouble is, aside from the total lack of any evidence at all connecting Bacon to any of the plays or poems, we also know Sir Francis Bacon’s writing style, his range, his concerns, and his opinions. They don’t fit the plays. At all. The same is true of the current most-favoured candidate, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the shy bard depicted in the recent (and very silly) movie Anonymous. We have extant examples of de Vere’s poetry. It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t compare to the style and quality of even Shakespeare’s earliest and worst sonnets. The Earl also wrote a few comedy plays. None of them survive, but they are mentioned by a contemporary critic, Francis Meres. Meres also mentions Shakespeare. The context makes it perfectly clear that Meres thinks of them as different people. (This also rubbishes the notion that deVere would be precluded from writing plays by his social position – the excuse often used to explain the Earl’s theorised decision to use an actor as a front man.)
It’s often said by ‘Anti-Statfordians’ that Shakespeare lacked the education he would have needed to write the plays. But Shakespeare, as the son of a local alderman, would have been entitled to attend Stratford’s King Edward VI grammar school. Shakespeare’s plays are recognisably the work of someone with an Elizabethan grammar school education – a grounding that would look more like a Classics degree from Oxbridge today. Anti-Stratfordians often point out that, unlike other playwrights (Christopher Marlow, for instance) Shakespeare didn’t attend University. But neither did Ben Jonson, the most ostentatiously learned playwright of Shakespeare’s time. Anti-Stratfordians are fond of saying Shakespeare owned no books. What they mean is that we have no record of his library. But we have no record of the contents of his wardrobe either. Does that mean he owned no shoes?
Shakespeare’s plays are stuffed with idiomatic Warrickshire words, spellings, local names and local knowledge. Shakespeare puts in jokes which refer to his father’s profession and status – glove-maker and alderman – and conducts elaborate wordplay on his own name: ‘Will’. It’s difficult to imagine how or why Francis Bacon or Edward deVere, Earl of Oxford, would do any of that… unless they were covering themselves with pathological consistency. Meanwhile, the wackier fringes of Anti-Stratfordianism have ransacked Shakespeare looking for secret codes that reveal the names of the true authors, and never found anything that can’t be explained better as coincidence and/or wishful thinking.
Quite apart from anything else, about twelve of the plays Shakespeare authored or co-authored were definitely written after Oxford was in his grave. Amazingly, Anti-Stratfordians don’t let this stop them. They ignore the scholarship which dates the plays, or they claim byzantine conspiracies in which accomplices secretly added topical references to plays which Oxford left for posthumous performance. For some reason. And all without a shred of evidence. Even more extreme are the manoeuvres gone through to prove Marlowe wrote the plays. Marlowe was killed in 1593, before thirty-four of Shakespeare’s plays were written. The death of Marlowe is certainly mysterious, and may have been an assassination linked to his near-certain role as a part-time spy, but there’s no evidence that he faked his own death. And again, we can analyze the differences between Marlowe’s work and Shakespeare’s. Marlowe is the only candidate talented enough to be remotely plausible, but his style is still quite distinct. Shakespeare was influenced by Marlowe, and borrowed from him. That’s sufficient explanation of their occasional similarities – which we notice all the more because of their many differences.
Anti-Stratfordians say that mainstream academics and scholars don’t want to admit the truth because it would spoil their lucrative Shakespeare industry… but Anti-Stratfordianism itself is a lucrative industry! However, the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare seems to owe more to snobbery than profit. The son of a glover is not good enough to satisfy some people. (By the way: Jonson was the son of a bricklayer, yet, as far as I know, nobody claims he didn’t write his own plays.) Some people simply find it hard to believe that some of the greatest works in the English language were written by a lower middle-class nobody from the rural midlands whose father was a tradesman, who never went to university, and who also seems to have liked money and been something of a social climber. People want Shakespeare to be a tortured visionary, or a suffering artist, or a glamorous aristocrat, or a questing intellectual, or some combination of all these. But the bankruptcy of this becomes apparent when you consider that Bacon was involved in witch trials which included torture, and Oxford was a murderer who got away with it because his victim was a mere servant. It’s odd that such men should be considered preferable to a man who, at worst, lacked a diploma, had a bit of a brummie accent, avoided taxes where possible, and could have been nicer to his wife. But that’s who wrote the plays. The factual record admits of no other reasonable conclusion.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the evidence for Shakespeare, or the inanities of the Anti-Stratfordians. For further reading: The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate, Contested Will by James Shapiro, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, and The Shakespeare Authorship Page.
ADDITIONAL 14/04/15: See also Shakespeare, In Fact by the late Irvin Leigh Matus. This book takes the trouble to engage with actual Anti-Strat arguments and check their facts... and shows, in the process, that they're not just factually wrong but actively distort their sources. Indispensible if you care about this issue and enjoy (as I do) the guilty pleasure of reading Anti-Strats being debunked.