Conspiracy Theories

Is William Shakespeare history’s biggest fraud?

The Chandos portrait - it's believed to be of Shakespeare, but nobody knows for sure
The Chandos portrait – it’s believed to be of Shakespeare, but nobody knows for sure

Could it really be the case that ‘William Shakespeare’ is just a fictional alias hiding the real scribes of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and the like? Is Shakespeare the biggest hoax of British history?

The notion that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his popular catalogue of plays has been debated since the middle of the 19th century. Conspiracy theorists believe that Shakespeare’s creative genius and extensive knowledge of languages, travel and the royal court are not compatible with his humble origins and modest education. They cite the lack of written records of Shakespeare’s existence as evidence that ‘William Shakespeare’ was nothing more than a pseudonym.

What is known about Shakespeare’s life appears to be largely speculative. There are no birth records and nobody knows for sure that he was born in the house known as ‘Shakespeare’s Birthplace’ in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Very little is known about his wife, Anne Hathaway; she is only mentioned in a handful of legal documents. Nobody knows when he wrote his plays. There are times in the late 1500s and early 1600s when he left no historical traces whatsoever. And nobody knows anything about his private life, his physical appearance or his religious beliefs.

Authors do use pseudonyms, sometimes without us realising it. Nicci French, who writes psychological thrillers, is actually husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. For her post-Harry Potter series of detective novels, J.K. Rowling wanted to be known as Robert Galbraith – till her solicitors leaked the truth. Galbraith’s ‘debut novel’ The Cuckoo’s Calling even had a fictional biography for the made-up author.

So could Shakespeare also be a pseudonym – one that’s been carefully maintained for hundreds of years?

The ‘real Shakespeares’

Christopher Marlowe - the real Shakespeare?
Christopher Marlowe – the real Shakespeare?

Christopher Marlowe, a poet and playwright himself, has been put forward as the real hand behind the likes of Hamlet and Richard III. Proponents of this theory cite alleged hidden meanings in Shakespeare’s writings and stylistic similarities between Shakespeare and Marlowe. It’s also said that Marlowe hired Sir Thomas Walsingham to copy out his manuscripts to stop his identity being discovered through his handwriting. Conspiracy theorists say this explains why Shakespeare’s first drafts were near perfect.

Even though Marlowe was stabbed to death in a brawl in 1593, some believe he faked his death to hide from debt collectors and avoid punishment for blasphemy (he was said to be an atheist, a terrible crime in those days). It’s said that he continued to write his highly successful plays from the shadows, under the guise of ‘William Shakespeare’.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s first published work, Venus and Adonis, was registered initially with no named author. It was officially published 13 days after Marlowe’s supposed death, and now had Shakespeare’s name included.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is also said to be the real Shakespeare. Proponents of this theory cite similarities between de Vere’s life story and events in Shakespeare’s plays as evidence, as well as stylistic similarities between the plays and de Vere’s letters. This theory was popularised in the 2011 movie Anonymous, which invited quite a volatile reaction from people outraged that Shakespeare’s authorship was being challenged so publicly.

Was Shakespeare in fact Queen Elizabeth I herself?
Was Shakespeare in fact Queen Elizabeth I herself?

Others said to be the real Shakespeare include Sir Francis Bacon, who’s alleged to have alluded to his authorship by describing himself as a ‘concealed poet’ in letters. Then there are people who argue that Queen Elizabeth I herself was the true scribe. This highly intelligent woman (well, if she was a woman and not a man in disguise) was probably the best educated woman of her generation in England at the time. It’s also been noted that many of Shakespeare’s plays were propaganda pieces that glorified the Tudor dynasty, and were commissioned by Elizabeth’s secretary of state.

The official line

The Shakespeare deception is considered a fringe theory that modern scholars reject. They argue that any similarities between Shakespeare’s writings and the other candidates are countered by loads of differences, and that there is no direct evidence for any other candidates – only clues and conjecture.

Will we ever know for certain? It may be that the truth is still being concealed. That someone is keeping historical documents naming the real Shakespeare under lock and key somewhere. And if Elizabeth I was the real writer – or at least in on the cover-up as the movie Anonymous suggests – then perhaps the only people who know the truth today are the Royal Family….

Next week: Million Eyes updates and advice for writers – spotting agent and publisher scams

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