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.

Delia Bacon, who ‘more than anyone’ was responsible for triggering the Shakespeare authorship controversy

In the 1890s an American doctor, Orville Ward Owen, claimed to have discovered a verse instruction manual written by Bacon himself as a guide to the posthumous deciphering of his works. Owen built an elaborate decoding machine with sensational results: the assiduous Bacon wrote not only the works of Shakespeare but also those of Marlowe, Greene, Spenser, Burton, and Peele; he was, moreover, the bastard child of the Earl of Leicester and Queen Elizabeth—who incidentally had been strangled to death by Robert Cecil—and thus the rightful heir to the throne.

A follower of Owen, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, refined his methods to reveal that the Earl of Essex too was Elizabeth’s son, and therefore Bacon’s younger brother. Her decoding also added five new plays to the canon, though sadly she published only plot summaries and extracts. A climax to this nonsense came when Owen sailed for England where he rented dredging machinery in the mistaken expectation that he would clinch all his arguments by finding revelatory books and manuscripts concealed in leaden containers at the bottom of the River Severn.

Donnelly’s book had been published by Mark Twain, who, though he was not convinced by its arguments, also became a disbeliever; Shapiro convincingly ascribes Twain’s doubts to his “conviction that great fiction, including his own, was necessarily autobiographical.” Discerning a deep discrepancy between what was known of Shakespeare’s life and the works, Twain could not believe that the Stratford man had written them. If he had, writes Shapiro, “Twain’s most deeply held beliefs about the nature of fiction and on how major writers drew on personal experience would be wrong.” Prefiguring the arguments of those who claim that the works of Shakespeare could only have been written by a man who had traveled to Italy, Twain also argued that the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress must have visited Rome, and he claimed that John Milton was the true author of that work. In addition he believed that Queen Elizabeth was a man. Great comic writer though Twain was, his sense of humor seems to have deserted him when he came to write about literature and history.

The other principal figure in Shapiro’s study of Baconian heretics is Henry James, who, characteristically, never quite came out as such. But at least his interest provided the catalyst for two fine works of art: his story “The Birthplace,” in which he succeeds in writing about Shakespeare and Stratford—“a small, squalid country town”—without actually admitting that he is doing so; and his essay on The Tempest, which he—like many others—thought of as Shakespeare’s most personal utterance.

Though Shapiro writes, in spite of his earlier identification of Bacon as a leading current contender, of conducting a “post-mortem of the Baconian movement” and of its “demise,” reports of its death may be exaggerated. The Francis Bacon Society incorporated in 1886 is still active, declaring on its website that one of its principal aims is to “encourage the general study of the evidence in favour of Francis Bacon’s authorship of the plays commonly ascribed to Shakespeare, and to investigate his connection with other works of the Elizabethan period.” And the website of the Francis Bacon Research Trust states positively if ungrammatically that

the only person who fits the description of the author Shakespeare as given by the Shakespeare Monument and the internal evidence of the plays, as well as being the only person alive throughout the whole Shakespeare period and who had a definite motive and declared purpose for writing them, was Francis Bacon.

In Shapiro’s third section, “Oxford,” his account of Sigmund Freud’s adherence to the Oxfordian cause forms a brilliantly illuminating contribution to the study of the great analyst’s psychological makeup. Freud knew his Shakespeare, but although early in his life he rejected out-and-out Baconianism, he questioned Shakespeare’s sole authorship of the works, preferring to see them as the product of collaboration. Hamlet became “a canonical psychoanalytic text” above all because Freud wanted to see it as a reaction to Shakespeare’s father’s death. In this he was influenced by Georg Brandes’s popular biography-cum-critical study of 1896, but the theory became difficult to uphold when Brandes changed his mind about the play’s date.

Freud was finally converted to the Oxfordian cause by Thomas L. Looney’s book “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere Seventeenth Earl of Oxford of 1920. Like Mark Twain, Looney (the name, Shapiro optimistically remarks, rhymes with “bony”) found it hard to reconcile the facts of Shakespeare’s life with the ethos of the plays, nor could he believe in a Shakespeare who “retired to Stratford to devote himself to houses, lands, orchards, money and malt, leaving no traces of a single intellectual or literary interest.” On the other hand, certain aspects of Oxford’s life appeared to be reflected in the work: he was an accomplished poet, he wrote comedies (none of which have survived), and he had been the patron of a playing company. So at least he appeared to be a more plausible candidate than many other Elizabethan aristocrats.

There were obstacles to belief, not least the fact that Oxford died in 1604, a decade before the documented end of Shakespeare’s writing career. And if Looney had known what we now know about Oxford’s repulsive character and vicious behavior as chronicled in Alan Nelson’s biography Monstrous Adversary (2003), he might have been less keen to support the earl’s case. Nevertheless Looney convinced Freud to an extent that has puzzled and embarrassed Freud’s biographers. As with many of the doubters, there appears to have been an element of social and intellectual snobbery in Freud’s reluctance to believe that the plays could have been the work of a man who grew up “with a tall dungheap in front of his father’s house in Stratford.” More fundamentally, Shapiro speculates that “Freud’s devotion to Oxford’s cause” was “a response to a threat to his Oedipal theory, the cornerstone of psychoanalysis—which in turn rested in no small way upon a biographical reading of Shakespeare’s life and work.”

The most illuminating remark about Freud quoted by Shapiro is the sudden realization by the wife of one of his patients that “if the professor had a sense of humor” she had “never seen it.” Those in search of the risible will find the story of the Oxfordian movement no less rewarding than that of Baconianism. Because Freud thought the subject of the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (see illustration on page 31) looked un-English, he suspected “that Shakespeare was of French descent, his name a corruption of ‘Jacques Pierre.’” A drama critic by the name of Percy Allen argued that the Earl of Oxford was Queen Elizabeth’s secret lover and that the Earl of Southampton was their son. A development of this theory had Oxford as both Elizabeth’s lover and her son. Allen, author of Talks with Elizabethans (1949), spoke directly to Shakespeare, Oxford, and others during séances conducted by the medium Hester Dowden, who as it happened was the daughter of Edward Dowden, eminent Shakespeare editor and biographer. The spirit of the Earl of Oxford generously dictated four new sonnets for her to present to Allen.

After Looney died, Oxfordian propaganda dwindled for a while, but the Shakespeare Oxford Society was founded in 1957 and since then many publications, online and off—including Charlton Ogburn’s book The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984), along with well-publicized “moot courts” in both America and England and events featuring the Earl of Burford, who is descended from de Vere—have kept the flame alight in the face of growing competition from Marlovians and sundry other candidates.

Shapiro’s book comes full circle with its last main section, like the first headed “Shakespeare.” He patiently rehearses the arguments against any attempt to dethrone Shakespeare. No contemporary doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship are recorded. The plays show an intimate knowledge of the theatrical profession such as could be acquired only by a professional. A document in the hand of the Master of the Revels records an encounter with Shakespeare. Early editions of the plays contain evidence of Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of the acting company for which he wrote. The epilogue to 2 Henry IV is spoken in the person of Shakespeare himself. There are masses of contemporary printed and manuscript references to Shakespeare as a writer. There is clear evidence that the dramatist Shakespeare is the man of Stratford. The development over the past twenty or so years of studies demonstrating collaboration in some of the plays is itself revealing: “It’s impossible to picture any” of the aristocrats or courtiers whose names have been advanced “working as more or less equals with a string of lowly playwrights.”

Shapiro’s book is a brilliantly researched, highly readable, thoughtful, and wise contribution to the history of Shakespeare’s reputation. Anyone reading it ought to realize that the story that lies behind the anti-Stratfordian movement is one of irrationality and obsession, of a refusal to consider evidence in favor of conjecture, prejudice, snobbery, and a vain desire to create a stir. I wish I could believe that the arguments rationally and temperately rehearsed in Contested Will would do anything whatever to convert the disbelievers or to discourage potential converts. But I don’t.

Brandes’s book, which Freud knew, includes a vigorous attack on what he calls “the Baconian impertinences” and describes “the theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays” as “unrivalled in its ineptitude,” and the first edition of the Shakspere [sic] Allusion Book, with its sober listing of numerous contemporary references to Shakespeare as a writer, had appeared in 1874, but that did not stop Sigmund Freud or Henry James from apostasy. Shapiro is not the first modern scholar to present cogent arguments against the anti-Stratfordians. And even as I write I learn of a new book, Shakespeare’s Truth, by Rex Richards, which “includes ciphers and codes hidden in monuments around the UK, which reveal that Shakespeare did not, in fact, write any plays at all.”5

In the epilogue to Contested Will, Shapiro follows through on his attack on Malone and other early scholars who sought to find direct reflections of Shakespeare’s life experience in his writings. The practice, he suggests, is making an insidious return in biographies such as the BBC series by Michael Wood (In Search of Shakespeare, 2003) and the books by Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World, 2007) and René Weis (Shakespeare Unbound, 2007). Wood finds that the sexual jealousy depicted in the sonnets has a subtext of Shakespeare’s physical decline and anxiety about his own sexual performance. For Greenblatt, the story of Shakespeare’s unhappy marriage—itself at least in part an extrapolation from the plays—“is replayed in the ‘frustrated craving for intimacy’ found in so many later plays.” Weis finds reflections of real life characters in plays, and takes images of the poet’s lameness literally.

Very properly, Shapiro deplores the ill effects of simplistic attempts to read the works as biography, downplaying the force of Shakespeare’s imagination. But perhaps he goes a little too far in his refusal to countenance efforts to find reflections of Shakespeare’s innermost experience in the plays. It is not unhistorical to suppose that writers of his time could draw directly on their experiences of life. If Ben Jonson could write a poem explicitly about the death of his son—“Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry”—it does not seem perverse to look for reflections of Shakespeare’s life in, for instance, poems in which he plays on the name Will. We would not value him as highly as we do unless we believed that his works reflect deep meditation on the fundamentals of human life. It is not unreasonable, I suggest, carefully and undogmatically to interrogate the plays and poems for what they may tell us about the results of his thought.

  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.

  5. 5

    London: Thrilling, 2009; see The Evesham Journal, January 28, 2010, p. 8.