I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but this one caught my eye. Despite his status as arguably the most revered English writer in history, the evidence of his authorship is scant. Over the years, many have questioned the truth behind Shakespeare’s origins. Mark Twain once asserted, “So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.”
The skepticism is not born from the desire to fuel conspiracy theories, but rather from the thin thread of evidence connecting William Shakespeare to the works that bear his name. His ostensible history is a concoction of conjectures, educated guesses and inferences woven together by biographers and scholars who strive to construct a coherent narrative around an elusive figure.
What do we actually know? As recorded by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England to an illiterate glove
The astonishing material attributed to Shakespeare’s 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and 1,700 new words and phrases leads us to wonder if a single individual could have generated this body of work in just over 20 years. Only two of his plays had been published at the time of his death.
What further complicates this enigma is Shakespeare’s supposed extensive knowledge of classics and philosophy, which has perplexed his biographers. There is no concrete evidence that Shakespeare could even write a complete sentence. As far records suggest, his formal education consisted of only a few years of grammar school. Critics have long questioned how this modestly-educated young man from a small town materialized into the literary scene in London, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece. He utilized source texts that were not even translated into English and boasted a working vocabulary of 17,000 words, which was twice that of John Milton, the Secretary for Foreign Tongues by the Council of State of England. Curiously, Shakespeare never left southern England, yet his works exhibit an intricate understanding of Italian landscapes and the Dutch monarch’s life. It makes one contemplate whether Shakespeare was indeed an unparalleled genius or a historical fabrication. Jonathan Bate, a Shakespeare expert from the University of Warwick, located near Stratford, notes, “If Shakespeare hadn’t been metamorphosed into a god, nobody would think it was worth having an authorship controversy about him.”
Descriptions of Shakespeare’s appearance are scarce. His only existing portraits were crafted centuries after his death, adding another layer of obscurity. The only definitive copies of Shakespeare’s handwriting are six signatures on legal documents. No original manuscripts have ever been found, although it is worth noting that few letters or diaries of commoners from that era have survived. The scant legal documents offer little resemblance to the writings of a gifted and witty poet. Even his will lacked any mention of his literary works, as it left only his “second-best bed” to his wife.
The absence of original manuscripts of his works leaves scholars with the tantalizing possibility that Shakespeare might have been a pseudonym. Could a committee of writers have collectively crafted the Shakespeare canon? Over the years, various contenders have been suspected as the potential authors of Shakespeare’s works, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and even Queen Elizabeth herself. Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has also emerged as a prominent candidate.
14 years Shakespeare’s senior, de Vere was a refined and multilingual aristocrat with an extensive educational background. His adoption under William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s trusted advisor, provided him with access to a rich library, worldly experiences and a profound education. Though de Vere has his share of skeptics, many advocates of the Oxfordian theory argue that his high social status would have necessitated the use of a pseudonym for playwriting, a profession thought to be unbecoming for a nobleman. Many of Shakespeare’s plays such as “Hamlet” and “King Lear” contain elements parallel to de Vere’s life. Furthermore, the themes and intimate knowledge of royal courts and government bureaucracies depicted in Shakespeare’s works align with an aristocratic perspective, contrasting with his commoner status.
The Shakespeare authorship question stands as a unique puzzle, filled with the same dramatic tropes and intrigues found in his plays. For those who dare to join me and embark on some historical detective work, the quest to uncover the true identity of the world’s most celebrated author continues. Shakespeare’s timeless works endure, but the elusive figure behind the quill remains one of literature’s most enduring riddles.