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  • Lynne Shelby

The Shakespeare Conspiracy

This week, on 23rd April, it was the birthday of William Shakespeare, allegedly the world’s greatest playwright – or was he?!

During his lifetime, audiences flocked to the Globe Theatre to watch the latest offering from Master Shakespeare, ready to pelt the actors with rotten fruit and vegetables if they failed to entertain, never once questioning that King Lear or Romeo and Juliet were written by anyone other than Will himself.

But two hundred years ago, the first doubts as to who wrote the plays began to emerge. Mainly this was because a lot of literary folk found it hard to believe that a grammar school boy from Stratford, the son of humble glover, would have the learning to write works of such genius. Despite the possibility that maybe Shakespeare actually was . . . a genius.

But if Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, who did?

One of the first candidates for the writer of the complete works of Shakespeare – other than Shakespeare – was the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon, with the supporters of the ‘Bacon Theory,’ claiming that cyphers and codes revealing that he was the author are hidden in the lines of the plays. Several prominent 19th century writers, including Mark Twain, and Delia Bacon (no relation), believed this theory, and there was much talk of opening tombs where papers proving Bacon wrote Shakespeare had been hidden – although none were ever found. The Baconians explain that Bacon – who rose to the dizzy heights of Attorney General in the Elizabethan legal system – felt the need to conceal that he was a playwright because his legal career would have gone nowhere if it was known he wrote for the lowly stage!

The Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was also put forward as the writer of Shakespeare – his day job as a spy providing the incentive for his concealing his identity. The Marlovians argued that Marlowe wasn’t murdered in a tavern in Deptford in 1593 as is generally believed, but faked his death to escape arrest on charges of sedition. This enabled him to continue his work for

Elizabeth I’s notorious spymaster, Walsingham – and to continue writing for the theatre.

By the twentieth century, theories as to the true identity of the writer of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets were coming thick and fast, with the name of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford in the lead. Oxford was a patron of the theatre. He had travelled to locations found in Shakespeare’s plays, was known to have written poems and plays in secret, and – what really excited the Oxfordians – a contemporary mentioned him as having a countenance that shakes spears. No less a personage than Sigmund Freud declared that Oxford’s character made him a far more likely writer of Shakespeare’s plays than Shakespeare – apparently, according to Freud, Oxford and Hamlet had a lot in common.

By the 1950s, the plot thickens and conspiracy theories abound. Supporters of the ‘Tudor Prince Theory’ asserted that Oxford and Elizabeth I had a secret love child who was raised as the Earl of Southampton, himself identified as the ‘fair youth’ mentioned in Shakespeare’s sonnets – with Oxford, writing as Shakespeare to conceal that he was the Queen’s lover, and dedicating his poems to their son: a confusion of identity reminiscent of – cue drum roll – a Shakespeare play.

Now, in the twenty-first century, there are claims that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a woman. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was highly educated, and a member of Elizabeth I’s household. She was the founder of a literary circle that included such literary luminaries of their day as the poet Edmund Spencer and the playwright Ben Johnson, and she was the patroness of a company of actors. She even published a ‘closet drama’ intended for private readers. But as an Elizabethan noblewoman she would never have been permitted to publish plays that would be performed on a – shock! horror! – public stage under her own name. That her love life bears a resemblance to the story of the Dark Lady of the sonnets, and the First Folio of the plays is dedicated to her sons, AND she was known as the ‘sweet swan of Avon,’ is enough to provoke claims that she wrote under the pen-name of William Shakespeare.

The trouble with the conspiracy theories is that no-one has come up with hard proof that any of them are anything other than just that: a theory. And despite the Anti-Stratfordians’ claim that there is no documentary evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote Shakespeare, there are in fact numerous contemporary documents that refer to him as a member of the acting troupe the Chamberlain’s Men, an actor AND a playwright.

It seems to me that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the man himself, for hard evidence that anyone other than Shakespeare was Shakespeare is conspicuous only by its absence.



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