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Bard Wars

As a blockbuster film treatment about the bard hits the screen: will the real Shakespeare please stand up?


The only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life? The portrait went on display at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Scratch the surface of the life of William Shakespeare, an actor in supporting roles who became the world’s most revered writer long after his death, and you will soon find a peculiarly fortean conflict. Known as the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ), the origins of this 200-year-old battle lie in the great void between the little we know about Shakespeare and the swirl of ambiguities and coincidences which, the iconoclastic commanders in this war maintain, give their claimants the right to his mantle. Fought between the covers of books and now online, employing an extensive armoury of documents, curious images, and scraps of folklore, each week brings a further escalation in hostilities as fresh recruits join the ranks of Anti-Stratfordians, an army divided into a multitude of factions rallying behind suspects of wildly varying circumstantial plausibility.

John Michell, in his classic study of the SAQ, Who Wrote Shakespeare, lamented how serious study of the alternative claimants to Shakespeare’s works was being suppressed by orthodox Stratfordians maintaining there was no question to answer. Yet only a decade or so later, Brunel University offers a Masters degree in Shakespeare Authorship Studies; a clear indication of how far the ground has shifted away from the Stratfordians and their central bastion, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The Trust’s chairman, Stanley Wells, is pretty hostile to the course, and its architect, Dr William Leahy, started out as a confirmed Stratfordian: “[I] was fairly dismissive, quite sarcastic, the usual kind of thing from Shakespearean academics when talking about the authorship question.” But further research brought him to recognise the SAQ’s existence, and the manifold ambiguities, coincidences and controversies lurking under its surface.

After spending months indoctrinating myself with Anti-Stratfordian theories, a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon was due. I felt like an infidel infiltrating Mecca. The church of Holy Trinity, where ‘Gulielmus Shakspere’ was christened in 1564 and whose body traditionally rests in the chancel under an unnamed, doggerel-inscribed slab next to members of his family, is a central battleground in the SAQ. Apart from the portrait in the First Folio (see below), the only other possibly authentic likeness of Shakespeare is his effigy, which overlooks his tomb. But there are discrepancies between the present restored monument and the first drawing of it made by William Dugdale in 1653. The issue turns on a woolsack, and the resemblance, or lack thereof, between Dugdale’s Shakespeare – a gaunt and dour man with one, maybe two, empty hands – and the present portly “self satisfied pork butcher” with the “subtle expression of a bladder” (as Mark Twain put it) holding a quill pen and paper. Even allowing for Dugdale as a poor caricaturist working in bad light (as Stratfordian scholar Jonathan Bate maintains, as well as suggesting that the pen was filched by souvenir hunters prior to Dugdale) could the empty hands of his Shakespeare rest on a woolsack because the monument originally represented his father, a dealer in wool, as Richard Kennedy argues?

Peter Beal entered the fray in tacit support of the ‘Woolsack Man’ theory, warning against accepting the word of old antiquarians as to the accuracy of their works, and concluding that: “This and other questions raised by the Dugdale drawing can only be answered if it is taken seriously by scholars and not consigned indignantly to the waste bin because it does not tally with cherished conceptions.”

 A fascinating skirmish, but one that did nothing to extinguish sceptical questions: was the monument altered to bolster the myth of Shakespeare the writer, or was Dugdale a slipshod portraitist?

The Bacon Cult

The lines on the tablet below the bust have long been a source of interest for cryptologists with their apparent challenge to the reader to discover the name of the person whom “envious death” has placed within the monument. Peter Dawkins is one of the latest researchers to find in these lines a simple cypher for ‘Fra Bacon’ – Sir Francis Bacon, the Rosicrucian head (along with his brother Anthony) of a group dedicated to “some great aim” along Hermetic/Cabbalistic lines, an immense project of knowledge classification known as the ‘Great Instauration’. Fellow Baconist Barry Clarke has also developed the theory of Shakespeare’s canon as a subset of Bacon’s master plan. The sole aim of Bacon’s Instauration, he told me, “was to revise the entire teaching of Aristotle. It was a vast intellectual project, which included scientific, moral and political philosophy. He stated ‘so after my death I may yet perhaps, through the kindling of this new light in the darkness of philosophy, be the means of making this age famous to posterity’, which suggests to me that he worked alone.” My concern that Bacon had enough on his plate as a philosopher, statesman, lawyer and scientist to have dashed off the works of Shakespeare as well is no problem for Clarke: “It is a myth that Bacon had little free time… In fact, he was so under-employed that at one point he was arrested for debt. His leisure time diminished in 1607 with his appointment as Solicitor General and vanished in 1613 when he became Attorney General, which is when the Shakespeare output ceased.” Clarke agrees with my suggestion that the efforts of the early Baconians, with their cryptographic machinery and concealed texts, the sublime poetry reduced to a mere by-product of mind-bogglingly artful concealment, “undoubtedly undermined” the case for Bacon. Baconian claims have moved on since, in surveying the history of Baconism up to his time, John Michell observed how “The Baconian cult at its most luxuriant is an awesome and awful thing [..] It is a grand vision, and Bacon’s perspective was also grand. It is easy to become immersed in Baconism.” The luxuriance of Bacon’s candidacy is now defined not just by cryptography, but also by esoterica, and how deep into these matters any prospective champion of his authorship dares to look.

One who has dared is Petter Amundsen who began to assemble his Baconian theory years ago, culminating in a documentary series for Norwegian television in 2009. Amundsen was kind enough to distil it for me: “I believe I can prove there are Rosicrucian signatures in the First Folio, and that this book and the 1609 Sonnets describe a road map leading to the Rosi-crucian vault.” Which, by the way, is located on Oak Island, Nova Scotia: the ‘Money Pit’ notorious for the numerous attempts to excavate its secrets. “This vault contains the lamp of the Temple and manuscripts, including Shakespearean ones. Of course, this is hard to believe, but many do when they see what evidence I can produce. I believe Shakespearean drama and poetry is basically a product created by two persons: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Henry Neville, hence their names on the Northumberland manuscript. There are of course other reasons why I believe this.

The manuscript in question has long been a talisman for Anti-Stratfordians. Unearthed in the library of Northumberland House in 1867, this collection of Bacon’s writings has a contents sheet that includes the scribbled names of Shakespeare (in various spellings), Bacon and Sir Henry Neville’s names, titles of Shakespeare plays, and a shortened version of the longest word in Shakespeare’s immense vocabulary: Honorificabiletunine. This genuine Elizabethan document precedes the first appearance of Shakespeare’s name in print, and indicates that Bacon or Neville owned copies of Shakespeare’s history plays, apparently in manuscript. What were they doing with them? Consider also the more recent enigma of the Elizabethan mural discovered in a St Albans coach house that shows a scene from the allegory of Venus and Adonis. This mural has symbolic links with Rosicrucianism, newly arrived from the Continent via France or Germany, and even includes a sketch of Bacon’s nearby house. Is it a coincidence that this is also the subject of Shakespeare’s first printed poem? It is just one of many curious anomalies Stratfordians would prefer not to address.

The Oxfordians

And so, on to literature’s most sacred site, Shakespeare’s birthplace, where visitors are first led on a darkened walkthrough of projections and spot-lit relics. After being shown a splendid Elizabethan gold signet ring bearing the initials ‘WS’ found in Holy Trinity churchyard (nice coincidence), we shuffle into a room where a veiled glimpse of a school desk at which the young Shakespeare might have learned his “small Latine and lesse Greeke” is caught. The theatricality invokes sacredness and reverence. When cued spotlights light a copy of the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s works, we all surge towards it to view up close the iconic engraving by Martin Droeshout. In 2010, John M Rollett subjected the peculiarities of Shakespeare’s dress in this image to a forensic scrutiny, rejecting orthodox assertions that Droeshout was incompetent, arguing that the errors of symmetry in the depiction of the doublet and collar “make it difficult to resist the interpretation that the person being depicted is being subtly and surreptitiously mocked”, indications of “a deliberate agenda of some kind.” Quite what, he does not say.

And then there are the facial anomalies: two left eyes, lopsided hair, and an outsize head. Why are there no allegorical figures surrounding the author, in accordance with tradition? How could this bizarre portrait have passed muster for publishers of one of the most expensive books ever produced at that time in England when books were costlier than furniture? Mike Webb, who recently achieved the rare distinction of having directed every one of Shakespeare’s plays, gave me the explanation of a steadfast Stratfordian: “To me, it is simply the work of a very inexperienced engraver, probably ‘cheap’. And I believe it plausible that the folks that knew Shakespeare probably didn’t like the first engraved image because it didn’t look like Shakespeare to them, so they insisted on some changes, and since we are not dealing with a digital ‘Photoshopable’ image, that those changes are in the engraving that was published.”

For Charles Beauclerk, these anomalies are not errors, they are allegorical symbolism, setting the stage for an actor who became the front man for the true author: “Looked at as a whole, the sitter is indeed presented in the guise of a Harlequin… a masked servant in patched costume, celebrated for his gluttony and slow-wittedness. Yet the collar and rich-looking doublet bespeak a man of social standing, reinforcing the impression that this is a dual figure. Far from bemoaning the artist’s ‘error’, one is inclined to praise the skill of his carefully elaborated design."

Thus begins Beauclark’s account of the secret life of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a candidate who inspires more crypto-biographies than any other claimant. Beauclark is the latest (though not the first) to divulge that Oxford was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I and Thomas Seymour, and the subsequent father of her secret son raised as Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, the “fair youth” of the Sonnets. And if you recognise any of the potential issues raised by all this in themes from, say, Hamlet or King Lear – dispossessed kingship, incest, alienation, concealment, playacting – this is because they are indeed autobiographical messages direct from the real author, Edward de Vere’s, own experience. It is an irresistible story of Elizabethan high intrigue. Small wonder, then, that the forthcoming Hollywood movie, Anonymous, written by John Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich, unfolds this same plotline.

Marlowe's Ghost

The cryptic affair of the First Folio continues with Ben Jonson’s celebratory and celebrated elegy for Shakespeare which opens it. Anti-Stratfordian Daryl Pinksen reads in it hints of a charade to get a blacklisted author published. When Jonson calls the author “A Moniment without a tomb” he clearly seems to be talking about a living person; odd when William Shakespeare had already been under the floor of Holy Trinity church for seven years. So who is Jonson referring to? In contrast to Oxfordian authors who amass heaps of circumstantial autobiographical evidence, Pinksen draws on his scientific training to take a more reductionist approach to the problem. Using the marked similarities between the work of Christopher Marlowe (who started his writing career first), and the earliest works of Shakespeare, Pinksen argues that orthodoxy’s acknowledgment of Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare stops short of the full truth: that the resemblance exists because the works were written by the same author. But since Marlowe is supposed to have been killed in an argument in 1593 at the age of 29, how was this possible? Pinksen points to the shady intelligence community Marlowe was spying for (making him powerful friends), and his activities as a freethinking atheist (making him powerful enemies), a combination resulting in forced exile and blacklisting. The discovery in 1925 of the coroner’s report of the ‘Deptford incident’, with its fishy account of the row that led to Marlowe’s fatal ‘accident’, has fuelled conspiracy theories that Marlowe was in fact assassinated. But Pinksen does not buy the murder explanation, finding it “unnecessarily complicated” when seen in context of the day’s events. Just a few days after Marlowe exits from the world stage, Shakespeare’s first printed work, the poem Venus and Adonis, was published. Its relationship to Marlowe’s unpublished Hero and Leander forces scholars to conjecture that Shakespeare had access to Marlowe’s unpublished works. But what if the Marlowe was the real author.

Pinksen finds common ground with the Oxfordian tendency to highlight the theme of exile that runs through the Shakespeare canon. But the resemblance ends there. For him, the Oxfordian method of “strip-mining the plays for biographical linkages” is “futile", and he prefers to point up the mirroring word-lengths used by Marlowe and Shakespeare (work started by another physicist, TC Mendhall, in 1897), while highlighting curiously disparaging references to Shakespeare in the dramas. “The case for Marlowe is the only alternative which is based on scholarship,” he told me. “I’ve read hundreds of books on Shakespeare; Oxford, Bacon, and the rest of them hardly warrant a mention. Marlowe, on the other hand, is present as a “ghost” in every book one reads about Shakespeare’s development as a writer. If there is a problem with the Shakespeare theory, then Marlowe (I would argue) is the only rational alternative for someone who values research and scholarship.” The way forward for Pinksen lies in the ‘disconcerting’ influence of Ovid on Shakespeare, which for him means two things: “an intense belief in the power of poetry to provide literary immortality, and an awareness that the printed book is the vehicle to achieve that immortality. Yet the biographical Shakespeare, we are told, showed no interest in the printing and publication of his work. I find this disconnect between professed belief and lack of practice difficult to reconcile, not to mention the fact that this disconnect does not seem to bother scholars in the slightest.” A small window in Westminster Abbey commemorates the dates of Marlowe’s life as “1564–1593?” – the question mark hinting that others believe in the possibility of him surviving that strange night in Deptford.

The Crucible of Creation

The list of claimants is still growing. Robin Williams has revived the candidacy of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561–1621). Amelia Lanier (1569–1645), the first Englishwoman to become a published poet, has been promoted from the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets (according to several authors) to the Bard himself by John Hudson. The occurrence of the name and motto on the curious Northumberland Manuscript of Sir Henry Neville (1562–1615) is the springboard for Brenda James’s cryptographically-paved journey into the secret literary life of this Falstaffian courtier and diploma In an echo of Calvin Hoffman’s excavation of Thomas Walsingham’s tomb in 1956, Alan Saunders’s advocacy of Fulke Greville’s (1554–1628) candidacy led to an endoscopic investigation of his tomb in 2010 in the anticipation of finding the Bard’s manuscripts. They weren’t there.

Now that the questions are being given serious academic scrutiny under the guidance of William Leahy, there is the prospect of one day seeing some of the candidates unite under a single banner, since for Leahy the case for any one single author is too simplistic. Shakespeare’s articulacy, at least four times the average vocabulary, suggests to him “five or six” highly educated writers, working with Shakespeare, buyer and broker of plays for the Globe theatre.

“My feeling is that he would write bits of those plays,” Leahy told me. “He would build a skeleton and others would contribute, and over time it would be a kind of collaboration. But not in the sense where four people would sit around a table and work out a script. What I’m describing is a kind of untidy way of approaching this and this is not what people want. They want – and I don’t mean this in a negative or a pejorative sense – they want a simple solution: one author who we can say is a genius who we can attribute all the plays and poems to. What I’m saying is, I think it’s a very complex and ambiguous reality and we just have to accept that.”

This view chimes with my research, but also with my experience of having worked with actors and writers on developing material in backstage situations where, fired by excitement and pressure, egos dissolve and bleed together in the common goal of ‘nailing’ a line or a scene, giving rise to instances of collaboration that belie the clean distinctions of the final credits. This is the crucible of dramatic creation that escapes a good many researchers on both sides of the argument, happy for their candidates to work in relative isolation. When two minds meet a third is created; and somewhere within the many conjunctions highlighted by Anti-Stratfordians, links perhaps too subtle to ever fully disentangle, is perhaps where the true identity of ‘our ever-living poet’, resides: a figure simultaneously fictional and real, born of a company of voices, some of whose contributions are known to us, others forever lost.

Jonathan Bate holds that Anti-Stratfordians are in thrall to a romantic idea of authorship, “attempting to write an identity for themselves” vicariously through their candidates. Yet as John Michell also observed, “The Stratfordians are no less victims of their own beliefs than the Baconians or other dogmatists. They too are ‘theorists’. In the face of such an immense task, the Anti-Stratfordian tradition of unmasking the ‘real’ Shakespeare by re-mythologising his identity, asserting one name above others, diminishes the undercurrents that a wider look at the question is apt to bring to light. Having done so, we might wonder if Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon was the one who most easily moved between, and brought together, a combination of talents, concealed and exiled poets included, cannily drawing on and honing their contributions while evolving a role for himself as the guiding entrepreneur and ‘frontman’ of a canon, the full origins and purpose of which even he did not know – indeed, did not care to know, provided his chief ambition of becoming a wealthy gentleman remained on course.

The vision of the Bard most undermined by any Anti-Stratfordian effort is surely the one that is doggedly upheld by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, where solitary Will scratches away in his humble lodging with nothing but a few books, copious industry, and, of course, his godlike genius: the curriculum-approved, tourist version created by Victorian entrepreneurs. A wider look at the controversy, however, may yet reaffirm the Stratford man’s key role in the creation of this everlasting work, albeit in a new sense that – barring some fantastic discovery – is never likely to prevail in the mythology of ‘William Shakespeare’.


The Rest is Silence

Shakespeare remains the world's most famous writer, but there's a surprising lack of hard evidence concerning his literary endeavours. 

The case against Shakespeare comes from a lack of documentary evidence linking him to writing. Most Stratfordians are happy to accept the attribution of the plays and poems to the name on the title pages of the first printed editions, while ignoring plays attributed to him by publishers that studies show he did not write, and leaving it at that. They have little choice. Apart from a couple of pages of a play tentatively thought to be in Shakespeare’s handwriting, no manuscripts or drafts have ever been found. No poems, no diaries. Not even juvenilia. Just mature, sublime printed works. And this is just the beginning for dissenters, who use the issue of the yawning disconnect between the printed works bearing Shakespeare’s name and the historical facts of his life as an empty stage on which to strut their alternate claimants.

The paucity of evidence for Shakespeare having penned anything apart from his name is decidedly strange. No correspondence from him has emerged, and the only letter to him that has turned up was never sent. Of the 60-odd documents listing him as an actor or for matters concerning tax or business, none of them confirm him as a writer. In contrast, for every other noted writer of the time there are various forms of evidence for their literary activity. No one in Stratford seems to have known Shakespeare was a writer, and none of his relatives recouped on his theatre investments or tried to exploit his unpublished plays after his death. Apart from a couple of volumes of poetry at the Shakespeare Birthplace, carefully framed as possibly belonging to the young William, none of his books has been found, nor even any trace of him having borrowed any. As for the missing manuscripts, 80 per cent of the plays performed in London between 1564 and 1642 are lost, which puts their present absence into perspective. But why did Shakespeare omit them in his own last will and testament, along with any books. Despite being pirated by publishers in his lifetime, he never sought recompense for the loss this represented to his income, and yet he pursued borrowers of relatively small sums through the courts, and spent handsomely. It’s as if Shakespeare cared nothing for his life’s work. Prospero breaking his staff?

Shakespeare’s silence extends to events normally eulogised by writers of the time. He wrote nothing to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the ascension of James I in 1604, the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1612; and nothing to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1612, or the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1613 – not a word about them.

Conversely, when Shakespeare died in 1616, there were no eulogies, no tributes, and no record of his funeral. The author of The New Metamorphosis named over 30 poets and playwrights of the years 1600–1615 – but not Shakespeare. Twenty-four years after his death, Ben Jonson published a work in which he recommended the best English writers, omitting mention of Shakespeare. How could the “Soul of the Age” and the “Star of Poets”, as Jonson termed his old friend in the First Folio eulogies, have slipped his mind? Perhaps it was a final bitter slighting of the unlettered provincial whose talent had outshone all the university wits. Maybe there were other reasons. Diana Price noted that “If Shakespeare personally interacted with any of the opinion-setters, decision-makers, or influential historical personages of the time, the historical record is inexplicably and uncharacteristically silent." Even the guide I spoke to at the Birthplace house finally admitted that there is “no copper-bottomed answer” to the mystery of the SAQ. The affair is like a theme out of a Shakespeare problem play, one where we are asked to judge how far the absence of evidence infers the evidence of absence.

New evidence that might plug a sizable gap in Shakespeare’s life has recently come to light. A seminary for English Catholic priests in Rome touted several cryptic signatures in its guest-books as Shakespeare’s on the opening of an exhibition in December 2009. The most suggestive of these figures, “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” (William the Clerk of Stratford), arrived in 1589, slap-bang in Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ between 1585 when he left Stratford, and 1592 when he appeared in London. This placing of Shakespeare in Rome at the end of a pilgrimage during the height of anti-Catholic paranoia in England impinges on several issues relating to Shakespeare’s life and the authorship question. One bulwark of the Anti-Stratfordian position is the overseas exploits of various claimants, used to explain a third of the plays’ foreign settings, contrasting with the (hitherto assumed) untravelled life of Shakespeare of Stratford. It will be interesting to see how the various sides in the authorship controversy deal with this new information.


Jerry Glover is an independent researcher, and has contributed to Fortean Times since 2001. He has written and produced numerous productions for the stage, radio, and the small screen.

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Film poster for Roland Emmerich's speculative blockbuster on the life of Shakespeare: Anonymous

  Edward de Vere

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 - 1604), circa 1575.

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  Francis Bacon

Circa 1600, Francis Bacon, (1561 - 1626). 

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Christopher Marlowe

English dramatist Christopher Marlowe (1564 - 1593).

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images



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