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Did Sir Francis Bacon write Shakespeare’s plays?

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Mystery, Theatre on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about Shakespeare originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 111 published on 29 February 1964.

Sir Francis Bacon, picture, image, illustration

Sir Francis Bacon, by C W Quinnell (after)

We come now to the most intriguing mystery in the riddle of William Shakespeare’s life – the suggestion that he never wrote the plays of William Shakespeare at all.

For there are many intelligent and learned people who believe that the world’s finest playwright was – a fraud!

They have written books about it, newspaper articles about it, made broadcasts about it. But they have not, of course, conclusively proved it.

And after years and years of mountainous research the true identity of Shakespeare remains a puzzle.

The answer may well lie in the tomb in Warwickshire where Shakespeare was buried in 1616. Many people say that the grave should be opened in the chance that precious manuscripts might be found to prove Shakespeare’s identity. Many of Shakespeare’s supporters, however, believe that any evidence about the Bard’s life which may be in the tomb should be hidden forever – that Shakespeare should be allowed to cherish his secrets.

Let us first name the two sides who argue for and against Shakespeare. Those who say Shakespeare was a fraud we will call the Anti-Stratfordians; those who say that Shakespeare wrote the plays of Shakespeare we will call the Stratfordians.

The Anti-Stratfordians kick off:

Are we to believe, they say, that the author of Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice and like works of genius was a mere Stratford lad educated in a grammar school with very little knowledge of the sweeping, advanced Elizabethan theories of his day, theories which pour out time and time again from his plays?

If not Shakespeare, then who?

Many of the anti-Stratfordians name Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), a shrewd, perceptive statesman who wrote philosophy, poetry and advanced scientific theories, as the real author of the plays.

Bacon supporters claim that the man who wrote the plays must have been a scholar of high order with a fantastic knowledge of English law, Italian law, religion, and science.

The author, they claim, must have been a linguist, an aristocrat familiar with the courts of Europe, who knew Venice well enough to paint an astonishing geographical portrait of the city in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare, they add, never went there, as far as anyone knows.

The Stratfordians counter: Shakespeare’s brief education would nevertheless have sufficed to give him an adequate grounding in English.

The anti-Stratfordians next point to Shakespeare’s First Folio, a work published in 1623, seven years after his death and which included nineteen of his most important plays till then unpublished, including The Tempest, Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale.

What is curious was that the editors left out several plays published during Shakespeare’s lifetime as though they were not valid. The inclusion of the new plays after his death in this important book has made people doubt that he wrote them.

Why did it happen, ask the Anti-Stratfordians – does it not seem strange that Shakespeare should have withheld these important plays? In fact, on reading this First Folio, does it not seem that the author must have been alive at the time of publication – for his hand editing the works is seen on almost every page?

But Shakespeare was dead. And Bacon was alive.

So, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a book was published suggesting that Bacon was the real author of the plays. From then on the Anti-Stratfordians pushed forward new claimants thick and fast. They included the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Oxford, a prominent Elizabethan, and the poet Christopher Marlowe.

In all the claimants have numbered fifty-seven – including Shakespeare’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth!

Much of the evidence for most of them has been flimsy and obscure. But it is impossible not to ignore some of it.

Bacon is obviously the most worthy claimant. He was an extraordinary man who went to Trinity College, Cambridge, when he was only thirteen. He became a barrister in 1582 and two years later a Member of Parliament.

His early years remain something of a mystery, but eventually, when Queen Elizabeth discovered him, fame and glory fell upon him. The Queen gave him Twickenham Park, a beautiful villa with sumptuous gardens opposite her residence at Richmond. In this calm and peaceful area Bacon wrote much of his works. When James I came to the throne he was knighted. Later he was made Lord Chancellor and Viscount St. Albans.

If Bacon did write Shakespeare’s plays, why did he not write them under his own name?

There are good reasons for that. The chief one is that it would not have been considered respectable in his day for an aristocrat and gentleman to write plays at all. For this reason, in Elizabethan times some men who wrote plays actually paid for the use of the name of someone unknown to shield their identity.

When Shakespeare was dead an important manuscript came to light during the demolition of a London house.

On the contents page of this manuscript three of Shakespeare’s plays were included as having been written by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – FRANCIS BACON.

A remarkable manuscript indeed, say the Anti-Stratfordians!

The other evidence for Bacon rests in parallels between Shakespeare’s works and Bacon’s. In Bacon’s Promus 653 there is the line “Thought is free.” In The Tempest there occurs a line “Thought is free.” In Bacon’s Promus 472 there is a line “Seldome cometh the better.” In Henry V there is a line “Seldome Cometh the Better.”

What do the Stratfordians say to all this? They say that Bacon’s style of writing is quite different from Shakespeare’s. Lines may be similar but the styles are remote.

And Bacon’s work is so immense that it is unlikely he had time to write these other plays as well.

A word now about a contemporary of Shakespeare, the playwright Ben Jonson. In 1615 he wrote of Shakespeare: “He is a poet-ape, an upstart, a hypocrite and a thief. His works are but the frippery of a wit.”

But of Bacon he once wrote: “I have and do reverence him, for the greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever by his work, one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that hath been in many ages.”

On the other hand Jonson, although not always an admirer of Shakespeare’s work, wrote the introductory poems for the First Folio praising Shakespeare’s works and comparing him with Virgil and Homer. So the arguments are unending.

What of the other claimants?

The Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) was a writer of poems and comedies, but his temperament was not in his favour. He was a sad man without the prodigious outlook of a genius.

His supporters cannot put their hands on a play which provides adequate evidence that he wrote the works. Their arguments chiefly rest with his background. He was a scholar, made the Grand Tour of Italy and was a patron of actors.

The Earl of Derby (1560-1641) was four years older than Shakespeare with an obvious knowledge of foreign courts and politics. One interesting piece of evidence put forward in his favour was that he might have visited the court of Henry IV in France which is described in detail in Love’s Labour’s Lost. And Derby, who also wrote comedies, was in a position near enough the throne to wish to remain unknown.

Then there is the poet Christopher Marlowe. The argument for him centres round the little details surrounding his death in Deptford. Marlowe was in trouble with the crown and faced with arrest and torture for atheism when he was suddenly and mysteriously murdered in a tavern fight.

An American investigator has claimed that Marlowe was never murdered – that someone was murdered in his place, while Marlowe fled to Italy and wrote the plays there, sending them back to his former protector Sir Thomas Walsingham. Walsingham is then said to have handed the plays to Shakespeare, who published them under his own name.

Stratfordians reply to this is that Marlowe’s death was recorded in 1593, years before the great plays were written. And Marlowe’s murderer was known to have received a sentence, although a light one.

Shakespeare – or someone else? Is there an answer in the plays themselves? In the immortal line from Hamlet for instance, where the author, whoever he was, wrote:

“This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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