Someone, this group of thinkers believes, other than William Shakespeare, wrote plays like “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Othello.” The name “Shakespeare” was used as a cover, they believe, in order to protect the author’s true identity. Shakespeare’s identity and the authorship question have been debated since around 1785, when the term anti-Stratfordian was first coined.
Anti-Stratfordian pronunciation: ahn-ti strah-ford-ee-uhn
History of the Anti-Stratfordian Theory
James Wilmot is commonly cited as the first person to publicly argue against Shakespeare as the author of his plays. He was a literary scholar who, in 1781, began a biography of the bard. He researched and came to the realization that there was no evidence that Shakespeare was a man of letters, something that people at the time (and people today) find as compelling evidence against Shakespeare from Stratford. No one, they suggest, without a comprehensive education, could’ve produced the plays and poems.
Definition of Anti-Stratfordian
The anti-Stratfordian theory is a broad term used to describe any other theory about Shakespeare’s plays other than that they were written by a man named William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. There are numerous possible candidates for the role. In total, more than 80 other authors have been proposed as the true William Shakespeare. Among these, the best-known are Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe. A few of the most common are described below.
The theory of alternative authorship is compelling for those who like the idea of a greater mystery behind the man. But, the argument has, from the other side, been described as classist. This is due to the fact that it hinges on the presumed impossibility that a normal man, like Shakespeare of Stratford, could’ve written some of the best literature in the English language.
The Many Theories of Shakespeare Authorship
The Baconian Theory
Wilmot suggested that Francis Bacon, an English philosopher who served as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England, was the author instead. Some still believe to this day that Bacon wrote some or all of the plays attributed to Shakespeare from Stratford. He was the leading candidate throughout the 19th century, but there is only coincidental and anecdotal proof to support the assertion that he was the true Shakespeare. Some passages known to have originated from Bacon have been compared with those written by William Shakespeare. Similarities have led some to believe they were written by the same person. Here are a few lines from Bacon’s ‘The Life of Man.’
The world’s a bubble; and the life of man less than a span.
In his conception wretched; from the womb so to the tomb:
Curst from the cradle, and brought up to years, with cares and fears.
Who then to frail mortality shall trust,
But limns the water, or but writes in dust.
Read examples of Francis Bacon’s writing.
The Oxfordian Theory
This theory is one of the most popular among historical and contemporary literary scholars. It proposes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays. He was known throughout his life for sponsoring actors and was considered an important courtier poet. Unfortunately, no examples of his theatrical works survive. Scholars who subscribe to this theory cite allusions they say connect the Earl to Shakespeare’s works, such as the information in the plays and poems. There are apparent similarities between his biography and Shakespeare’s writing. J. Thomas Looney was the first to layout, in detail, a full picture of why the Oxfordian theory was compelling and should be taken seriously.
One of the reasons that some scholars have suggested that Oxford, or any other aristocrat, would’ve written Shakespeare’s poems and plays anonymously is because of a social stigma attached to printed text. It was seen as untoward for the higher classes to print any of their literary works.
The Marlovian Theory
Christopher Marlowe, one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, is another popular option. He was born into the same social class as Shakespeare, and their lives mirror one another in a few ways. He spent time at Cambridge University and is regarded as one of the pioneers of blank verse. Commonly, he’s regarded as an important influence on Shakespeare’s writings. For some, he’s the true author.
He was put forward as a candidate by T. W. White in 1892, who suggested that Marlowe didn’t die as recorded in 1593 but instead lived through the next years to finish Shakespeare’s plays. He also said that Marlowe was one of several writers who worked on the plays, the others being Shakespeare himself, Robert Greene, George Peele, Samuel Daniel, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Lodge. Others, like Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, also supported the idea of Marvell as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Here are a few lines from Marlowe’s ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.’
Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.
Read more examples of Christopher Marlow’s poetry.
The Derbyite Theory
William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, is another man that some literary scholars have put forward as a contender for the role of William Shakespeare. His candidacy was first proposed by James Greenstreet in 1891. His lifespan, unlike some of the other candidates, does fit with the recorded dates of the plays. Some have suggested that his initials, W.S., and the fact that his first name is Will connect him to the “Will” sonnets. Other pieces of evidence include the fact that he traveled to a location in which Love’s Labour’s Lost is set.
Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare’s Plays?
This is the central question at the heart of the anti-Stratfordian theory. Some, for reasons that are more or less compelling, say no. That it is impossible for someone with Shakespeare’s upbringing and education to have created these masterworks of English literature, others, including many professional Shakespeare scholars, consider the theory outlandish and baseless. These scholars state unequivocally that Shakespeare was the author of his own plays and poems. When speaking about anti-Stratfordian theories, one scholar, professor Stephen Marche, said that anti-Stratfordian theories have as much credibility among professional Shakespeare scholars as the idea of a fake moon landing does among astronauts (New York Times Magazine, Wouldn’t It Be Cool if Shakespeare Wasn’t Shakespeare).
Related Literary Terms
- Shakespearean Sonnet: follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG and uses iambic pentameter.
- Context: the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
- Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities often only interpretable through context.
- Tragedy: refers to a type of drama that explores serious, sometimes dark, and depressing subject matter.
- Tragicomedy: a fictional genre that incorporates elements of tragedies and comedies.
- Listen: The Shakespeare Authorship Question
- Watch: Did Shakespeare write his plays?
- Listen: Who Wrote Shakespeare?