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Plotting Against the Stratford Man

National Portrait Gallery, London
The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, circa 1610. According to James Shapiro in Contested Will, when Freud saw this portrait in London in 1908, he thought that the face looked ‘completely un-English’ and ‘began to suspect that Shakespeare was of Fr

James Shapiro declares in the opening sentence of the prologue to his cleverly titled book that it is “about when and why many people began to question whether William Shakespeare wrote the plays long attributed to him, and, if he didn’t write them, who did.” Shapiro starts with news of a fascinating discovery. Who initiated the authorship debate by suggesting that the works of Shakespeare were written by Sir Francis Bacon?

Up to now everyone has believed it was an eighteenth-century Warwickshire clergyman, the Reverend James Wilmot (1726–1828). In an article published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1932, Allardyce Nicoll described two lectures reportedly given before the Ipswich Philosophical Society by one James Corton Cowell in 1805. Cowell told how Wilmot had amused himself in his retirement with the attempt to write a life of Shakespeare. The great Shakespeare scholar Samuel Schoenbaum writes that Wilmot became disconcerted to discover that the Stratford man was

at best a Country clown at the time he went to seek his fortune in London, that he could never have had any school learning, and that that fact would render it impossible that he could be received as a friend and equal by those of culture and breeding who alone could by their intercourse make up for the deficiencies of his youth.1

Moreover, none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries among the gentry of the day had left any record of him.

Losing faith in Shakespeare, we are told, led Wilmot to speculate that the true author of the works was Francis Bacon, but in old age Wilmot instructed his housekeeper to burn his papers. His story would have been lost to posterity had he not before his death confided it to Cowell, whose lectures were preserved in the University of London library.

Since the publication of Nicoll’s article, innumerable scholars (myself included) have confidently ascribed the inception of the Baconian movement to James Wilmot, but this is a slander. Shapiro, examining the lectures afresh, had the scholarly acumen to realize that they draw on information, and even vocabulary, that was not available until the late nineteenth century.2 Only one conclusion is possible: the lectures are forgeries and Nicoll was taken in by them.

James Wilmot had already been the victim of slanderous statements by his weird niece Olivia Serres, a royal impostor who claimed to be the daughter of King George III’s brother the Duke of Cumberland. She had falsely identified the unoffending bachelor clergyman as the author of the anonymous, antigovernmental Letters to Junius of 1769–1772 and, even less probably, as the secret husband of the king of Poland’s sister. Now Shapiro shows that Wilmot was the victim of another, posthumous fraud, too. Neither Cowell nor even the Ipswich Philosophical Society ever existed.

Even Shapiro doesn’t know why or by whom or precisely when the fraud was perpetrated. But he guesses that it may have been done for money, or through “the desire on the part of a Baconian to stave off the challenge posed by supporters of the Earl of Oxford.” Furthermore, the deception “reassigned the discovery of Francis Bacon’s authorship from a ‘mad’ American woman to a true-born Englishman.”

None of these explanations is entirely convincing. More work needs to be done on these papers. I suspect a clue to their authorship in the statement that Wilmot ordered his housekeeper to burn them “on the platform before the house.” An English house seems less likely to have such a feature than an American one—does this suggest that the forger was American? In any case, Shapiro’s discovery destroys the belief that the anti-Stratfordian movement originated before the time of Delia Bacon, an ambitious, eccentric, independent woman who published her Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded in 1857. As he intriguingly remarks, “the authorship question and the ‘whodunnit’ emerged at the same historical moment.”

There had been a few preliminary rumblings. We may discount the confident belief of a character in a play of 1759 that “Shakespeare was written by one Mr. Finis, for I saw his name at the end of the book.” Nor has anyone ever taken seriously the claims of the Learned Pig advanced in a comic story of 1786. But there was more power, or at least passion, in the fulminations of Colonel Joseph C. Hart, a New York lawyer who wrote, improbably, a book called The Romance of Yachting (1848). Hart, influenced according to Schoenbaum by a denigratory life of Shakespeare in Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia (133 volumes, 1829–1849), found that the plays “absolutely teem with the grossest impurities” and fantasized that Shakespeare “purchased or obtained surreptitiously” other men’s scripts, which he then “spliced with obscenity, blackguardism and impurities.” Hart did not identify the plays’ original authors.3

After Hart the floodgates opened, with an ever-growing stream of contenders for the authorship. Shapiro notes the existence over the years of some sixty or more, and the stream flows still. He concentrates on Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and Francis Bacon as “the leading contenders nowadays.” In my view Bacon’s candidacy has dwindled, at least in England, in favor of Oxford and Christopher Marlowe. Though Shapiro notes recent activity on the Marlovian front, he underplays the attention paid to Marlowe in monographs, films, and novels, and mentions only briefly the activities of personalities such as Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, which, as he notes, have resulted in such absurdities as the positioning of a question mark before the date of Marlowe’s death in his memorial window in Westminster Abbey.

But Shapiro’s focus on Bacon and Oxford is justified by his overriding purpose. He does not aim to chronicle the whole sad tale of human folly that is the history of attempts to disprove Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and poems. His interest “is not in what people think—which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms—so much as why they think it.” Bacon and Oxford are central to this endeavor because their cause has been espoused against the claims of fact and reason by great creative artists and thinkers including Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud. These men were no fools. What psychological compulsion can have led them, in the face of all the factual evidence, to support the anti-Stratfordian cause?

It is significant that the objections to Shakespeare ascribed to James Wilmot rested, like those of many doubters, on perceived discrepancies between, on the one hand, the life, social status, personality, and education of the man from Stratford, and on the other hand the qualifications imagined as necessary to the composition of the plays. Such perceptions suffuse the history of doubt about Shakespearean authorship and justify the prominence that Shapiro gives in the first part of his book to the development of Shakespearean biography, and especially to attempts to find links between the life and the works.

In the decades following Shakespeare’s death few attempts had been made to dig out information about him by, for example, questioning surviving relatives and friends.4 The path for conjecture was wide open, and was to be well trodden by the editor and biographer Edmond Malone (1741–1812), whose belief that he could identify links between events portrayed in the plays and actual happenings at the royal courts, Shapiro writes,

helped institutionalize a methodology that would prove crucial to those who would subsequently deny Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays (after all, the argument runs, how would anybody but a court insider know enough to encode all this?).

Malone is a central figure too in his belief that “Shakespeare mined his own emotional life in transparent ways and, for that matter, that Shakespeare responded to life’s surprises much as Malone and people in his own immediate circle would have.” So he attempted to identify reflections of Shakespeare’s personal life in the plays and, especially, the sonnets. Although “in his own day, and for more than a century and a half after his death, nobody treated Shakespeare’s works as autobiographical,” after Malone did so “a mad dash was on, and by the 1830s it seemed as if nearly everyone was busy searching for clues to Shakespeare’s life in the works.” This led to new fakes and forgeries, including those of John Payne Collier (1789–1883), which muddied the waters, and it led too to unfounded speculations about Shakespeare’s relations with his wife and other aspects of his personal life. Above all, dissatisfaction with the image of the man based on what was known of his life, and with notions about their author that might be extrapolated from the works, encouraged speculation that the gap was too wide to be credible: someone else must have written them.

Shapiro devotes his two central chapters to Bacon and Oxford. Bacon’s claims were first advanced by his nineteenth-century namesake, Delia Bacon, who, “more than anyone before or after, was responsible for triggering what would come to be known as the Shakespeare authorship controversy.” She is now most often remembered for the bizarre episode late in her life when, self-exiled from her native America, crazed and lonely, she spent a night in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon trying to summon up the courage to break into Shakespeare’s grave in the hope that she would find papers confirming her belief that its occupant was an impostor. But her courage failed her, and not long afterward she was taken back to America by a nephew and consigned to a lunatic asylum where she died, believing herself to be the Holy Ghost and surrounded by devils.

Her earlier life had promised better things. Born in a frontier log cabin in 1811, she displayed brilliant gifts as a child, became a schoolteacher at the age of fifteen, beat Edgar Allan Poe in a story-writing contest when she was twenty-one, developed into a successful lecturer on a wide range of subjects, and wrote a political play with Shakespearean echoes for the actress Ellen Tree. But her fascination with Shakespeare grew into an obsession, and, Shapiro writes, she “found the gap between the facts of his life and his remarkable literary output inexplicable.”

Disdainful,” as Carlyle wrote to Emerson, “or desperate and careless, of all evidence from museums or archives,” and driven by an unhappy love affair and a religious crisis, she evolved a theory, never coherently developed, that the plays had been written, as she put it, by a “little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians” centered on Francis Bacon, “who undertook to head and organize a popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise.”

Delia Bacon’s methodology was primarily intuitive, if not mystical; subsequent investigators applied pseudoscientific techniques. Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) spent years of hard intellectual effort in the attempt to discover a cipher within Shakespeare’s works that would demonstrate that Francis Bacon wrote them. He published the results in a thousand-page work, The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays (1888). Subsequently he tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Francis Bacon’s descendants to allow him to excavate at the family estate in the hope of finding lost manuscripts.

  1. 1

    S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1970; revised edition, 1991), p. 397.

  2. 2

    He acknowledges an earlier suspicion that the documents may have been forged, which was published in the anti-Stratfordian journal Shakespeare Matters 2 (Summer 2003).

  3. 3

    According to an article by W.H. Wyman from The Times of Philadelphia, December 26, 1886, inserted into the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s copy of Delia Bacon’s The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded, Hart, “an old New York schoolmaster with a fondness for yachting and a schoolmaster’s eagerness for literary reputation,” had heard her lecture and “was the first to enunciate a distorted version of Delia Bacon’s theory,” writing with “the diction of a schoolmaster and the brutality of a sailor.” This appears to establish Delia Bacon as the originator of the heresy.

  4. 4

    Shapiro remarks that Shakespeare’s nephew, William Hart, became “a professional actor in London and may have been privy to wonderful theatrical anecdotes,” but this was another man of the same name.

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