Shakespeare in the Limelight: Would the Real Will Please Stand Up?
by Gerit Quealy
Were the plays and poetry attributed to William Shakespeare really written by an actor named William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon? Throughout history, there have been plenty of scholars convinced that someone else was the true author. In this installment of findingDulcinea’s Shakespeare series, we pursue the Authorship Question with a discussion of some of its contenders.
No one can definitively pinpoint when the speculation began about who “Shakespeare” really was. There were rumblings even in his own time, including the suspicious “blind item” about an “upstart crow” planted in Greene’s “Groatsworth of Wit” and the puzzlement of the Bard’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, in 1709, about the scant details of the great man’s life.
Emerging as the earliest, and most enduring, challengers to the Stratford man: Sir Francis Bacon and playwright Christopher Marlowe.
It was Delia Bacon who put forth the first credible alternative. Although Ms. Bacon was not related to the renowned Elizabethan/Jacobean philosopher, statesman and scientist, her 1857 book presented a persuasive case for Sir Francis Bacon and poet Edmund Spenser (trined with Sir Walter Raleigh) as the moving force behind the works of Shakespeare. Bacon was an accomplished writer, identified as a concealed poet by his peers, known to have written theatrical material and had a wide array of knowledge and interests in many areas that appear in the works of Shakespeare.
Delia Bacon’s hypothesis provided solid ground in a sea of doubt, and gained strong support through the latter half of the 19th century. A preoccupation with Bacon’s ciphers, however, caused the theory to lose credibility over time. Nonetheless, there are still many supporters that feel the idea has validity in some form, and are pleased to have a greater knowledge of the man and his philosophies, regardless of their relation to Shakespeare.
Put simply, the link between playwright Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare goes something like this: They were writing for the theater at the same time, they borrowed from each other, Marlowe wrote a lot of Shakespeare, Marlowe was Shakespeare. True, Marlowe wrote in blank verse, as did Shakespeare, and there were similarities in language usage, which is what impelled 18th-century scholar Edmund Malone to declare that Marlowe was the author of “Titus Andronicus.”
The primary arguments against this theory are that Marlowe’s verse never rose to the level of Shakespeare’s and, more problematic, that he died in 1593, too early to have written most of the canon. Marlovians, as they are called, believe that because of his activities as a spy for the Elizabethan court, his death was faked and he was spirited away to write the plays in secret. This is the largest obstacle to this theory gaining more ground, although it continues to have strong adherents.
In reference to Shakespeare, the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “Only one of the 'wolfish earls' so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.” This led to the proposal of a coterie of others to be added to the list of possible authors: William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby; Roger Manners, Fifth Earl of Rutland; the poet Sir Edmund Dyer; the writer Samuel Daniel and a host of others. John Michell’s excellent book, “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” details the credentials for each candidate. Even Queen Elizabeth I has been proposed as the author!