Looking For Shakespeare

Two partisans explain and debate the authorship question

During the past two centuries doubts about the identity of the author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare have brought a small cottage industry into being. To date more than 4,000 books have been written on the authorship question. Passions and interest have always run high.

The roots of the enterprise can be traced to the 1780s, when the Reverend James Wilmot moved to Warwickshire, where Shakespeare had lived, to gather information for a biography. After covering himself, in the words of one scholar, "with the dust of every private bookcase within a radius of 50 miles" of Stratford and finding no books that had been owned by the playwright or other physical evidence, Wilmot burned his notes for fear of their implications. Eventually Wilmot revealed to a visitor his belief that the works of Shakespeare had been written by "some other person," perhaps Sir Francis Bacon. Because the secondhand account of Wilmot's conclusions did not surface until 1932, the credit for the opening public salvo in the debate is given to Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis) and William H. Smith, who each published a book in 1857 suggesting that William Shakespeare of Stratford could not have been the author of the works of "Shakespeare." Both writers implicated Francis Bacon.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote the introduction to Delia Bacon's book, in 1863 also wrote an Atlantic article in which he praised her conviction, if not her conclusion. Bacon's scholarship had a profound effect on Mark Twain, who said his disbelief in Shakespeare as the true Bard "was born of Delia Bacon's book." But neither Twain nor any of the other prominent figures who have expressed "anti-Stratfordian" beliefs—Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Sigmund Freud, among others—has exempted the doubters from academic scorn (in many cases well deserved). The Shakespeare scholar Alfred Harbage characterized them in our pages in 1956 as "eccentrics of the most familiar type—pathetic victims of the idee fixe, or wealthy old gentlemen safely indulging a latent hunger to be 'radical' about something."

The anti-Stratfordians are not discouraged, however, and during the past few decades a solid majority of them have coalesced behind Edward de Vere (1550-1604), the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, as the "onlie begetter" of the Shakespeare canon. The Folger Shakespeare Library—a bastion of orthodoxy—last April went so far as to invite Charles Vere, a descendant of the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, to present the case for the earl before a packed audience in the library's Great Hall.

Because authorship debaters typically talk past one another, we allowed for a two-stage process. We gave the writers here—each a learned and enthusiastic partisan, one for the Earl of Oxford and the other for Shakespeare—the opportunity to make his best case. Then each piece was sent to the opposing writer for rebuttal. A brief look at computer-assisted investigations of the authorship question follows this exchange.