Shakespeare Authorship Debate

Introducing the Shakespeare Authorship Debate

Portrait of William Shakespeare 1564-1616. Chromolithography after Hombres y Mujeres celebres 1877, Barcelona Spain
Leemage / Getty Images

Shakespeare’s true identity has been in dispute since the Eighteenth Century because only fragments of evidence have survived the 400 years since his death. Although we know a great deal about his legacy through his plays and sonnets, we know little about the man himself - Exactly who was Shakespeare?. Unsurprisingly then, a number of conspiracy theories have built up around Shakespeare’s true identity.

Shakespeare Authorship

There are a number of theories surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, but most are based on one of the following three ideas:

  1. The William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon and the William Shakespeare working in London were two separate people. They have been falsely connected by historians.
  2. Someone called William Shakespeare did work with Burbage’s theater company at The Globe, but did not write the plays. Shakespeare was putting his name to plays given to him by someone else.
  3. William Shakespeare was a pen name for another writer – or perhaps a group of writers

These theories have sprung up because the evidence surrounding Shakespeare’s life is insufficient – not necessarily contradictory. The following reasons are often cited as evidence that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare (despite a distinct lack of evidence):

Someone Else Wrote the Plays Because

  • The will of the world’s greatest writer did not itemize any books (however, the inventory part of the will has been lost)
  • Shakespeare did not have the university education required to write with such knowledge of the classics (although he would have been introduced to the classics at school in Stratford-upon-Avon)
  • There is no record of Shakespeare ever attending Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school (however, school records were not kept back then)
  • When Shakespeare died, none of his contemporary writers made tribute to him (although references were made during his lifetime)

Exactly who wrote under the name of William Shakespeare and why they needed to use a pseudonym is unclear. Perhaps the plays were written to instill political propaganda? Or to hide the identity of some high-profile public figure?

The Main Culprits in the Authorship Debate Are

Christopher Marlowe

He was born in the same year as Shakespeare, but died around the same time that Shakespeare started to write his plays. Marlowe was England’s best playwright until Shakespeare came along – perhaps he didn’t die and continued writing under a different name? He was apparently stabbed in a tavern, but there is evidence that Marlowe was working as a government spy, so his death might have been choreographed.

Edward de Vere

Many of Shakespeare’s plots and characters parallel events in the life of Edward de Vere. Although this art-loving Earl of Oxford would have been educated enough to write the plays, their political content could have ruined his social standing – perhaps he needed to to write under a pseudonym?

Sir Francis Bacon

The theory that Bacon was the only man intelligent enough to write these plays has become known as Baconianism. Although it is unclear why he would have needed to write under a pseudonym, followers of this theory believe that he left behind cryptic ciphers in the texts to reveal his true identity.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Shakespeare Authorship Debate." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 26). Shakespeare Authorship Debate. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Shakespeare Authorship Debate." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).