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…

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