The William Shakespeare Controversy

There’s one conspiracy theory that stands out in literary circles for the sheer controversy it causes. Did William Shakespeare actually write any of his plays or sonnets? This conspiracy seems absolutely insane. It discredits one of the most prolific playwrights that has ever been. A man whose works have been read and studied for centuries. But, could there actually be some validity to any of these claims.


Who is William Shakespeare?

to be or not to be

So, this will be a relatively short section. I assume that almost everyone has heard of the great, incomparable Shakespeare. At the very least, we’ve all sat through an English class that dealt exclusively with one of his many plays or been expected to analyse one of his sonnets.

However, before we can dive into a conspiracy theory surrounding Shakespeare, we should probably know a little bit about him. So, let’s get the basics out of the way.

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. He became a playwright, author, and actor. It is believed that he has about 39 plays and 154 sonnets under his belt. Unfortunately, not much is actually known about Shakespeare’s private life, which is probably why it is so easy to create conspiracies surrounding him. We do know that he was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and they had three children. 

Most of his early work was dedicated to comedies and histories. Though, his most famous plays tended to be tragedies, like Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Shakespeare’s plays started appearing on the London stage by 1592, though we don’t know when he actually started writing them. He retired in 1613, at the age of 49, and passed away three years later.


The William Shakespeare controversy

the william shakespeare controversy

So, on to the real hook of this article, the conspiracy itself: who wrote all of Shakespeare’s works? Interestingly, this question only started popping up about 230 years after his death. According to James Shapiro, “…the earliest documented claim dates back to 1785…”  This was when the scholar, James Wilmot, went searching for Shakespeare’s documents in Stratford-upon-Avon, only to come up empty-handed. This led Wilmot to jump to the conclusion that Shakespeare did not actually write any of the works previously attributed to him. Wilmot’s main argument was that all the plays and sonnets were clearly written by a man who was educated, well-travelled, and an “associate of the great and learned”, and that Shakespeare possessed none of these qualities.

Centuries later, this argument that Shakespeare did not possess the brilliant qualities that his works so clearly do is still the most prevalent. There are countless books, journals, and blogs dedicated to this one argument. Each author adding to it slightly and putting forward their own theory as to who the actual writer was. 

Who was the real Shakespeare then?

who was william shakespeare

Well, if you look at the long list of candidates, apparently there are a fair few William Shakespeares: Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, William Nugent, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Amelia Lanier, just to name a few. 

But, why these people? What arguments can be posed that prove true authorship? Honestly, this article would turn into a novel if I was to cover every single contender. So, let’s focus on some of the more popular ones.

Perhaps the most famous of these potential Shakespeares is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Elise Broach poses the argument that de Vere had the “perfect background” in her young adult novel, Shakespeare’s Secret. He was well-educated and well-travelled, not to mention the fact that “events of his life bear a fascinating resemblance to events in Shakespeare’s plays”. While the book itself is purely a work of fiction, this claim is based in reality and fact. As an Earl, de Vere would have had access to the best tutors and schools available at the time. He would have also had the funds to travel to some of the places mentioned within the texts. Shakespeare, the son of an alderman, would not have been wealthy enough to really travel at all or even attend the best universities. There is also reason to believe that de Vere would have had to hide behind someone else as the true author, as his standing amongst the nobles would have been affected. The dramatic arts were for the lower-class after all, and nobles would only offer their support in the form of patronage.

Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s main rival, is another fan-favourite for the authorship title. At the very least, it is believed that he co-wrote three of Shakespeare’s plays (namely, the Henry VI plays). Marlovian theorists believe that Marlowe staged his death in 1593 and wrote “his” plays while in hiding.


So, what’s the truth?

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Arguably, there might not be a simple true or false answer to this conspiracy. There is no way of knowing if Shakespeare wrote his plays unless you were actually sitting beside him while he did. However, this theory and its arguments provide too weak a case to ever truly besmirch Shakespeare’s name.

Firstly, the argument against Shakespeare’s education has been blown slightly out of proportion. While he may not have been a university graduate like some of his rivals, he was not the illiterate that many conspiracy theorists seem to believe. While Shakespeare was not wealthy, he was still considered middle-class. His mother was the daughter of landowners and his father was a successful alderman. Shakespeare attended the King’s New School, which was free and a grammar school (very popular in the Elizabethan era). This would mean that Shakespeare could actually write and would have had basic knowledge of Latin, at the very least.

Secondly, there is also no proof that anyone else could have written any of Shakespeare’s works, all the “evidence” is entirely circumstantial. While Marlowe will now be given joint credit for co-writing Henry VI, being a collaborator is not the same as actually writing a text in its entirety. Furthermore, Marlowe was already a successful playwright, which was the very reason he was considered Shakespeare’s rival in the first place. So why would he feel the need to write anything else anonymously and let someone else take the credit? Not to mention the fact that Marlowe was assassinated in 1593, while Shakespeare’s plays date well into 1614.

Actually, this counter-argument works against the Earl of Oxford as well, seeing as he died in 1604, before the appearance of Macbeth and about eight other plays. The other counter-argument to be made against him (and other noble would-be Shakespeares) is that there is no actual proof that there was a stigma against noblemen pursuing the dramatic arts in Elizabethan times. Only women were actually barred from this particular career, and others, but that’s a whole other can of worms. In conclusion, there might very well have been no reason for de Vere to hide behind a pseudonym when publishing any texts.


Unfortunately, arguments could very well be batted back and forth like a vicious tennis match, but the fact remains that actual historical proof is too limited to really prove either side right. So, hold to whichever side you wish. All it really proves is that William Shakespeare’s works are truly timeless. So, let’s keep celebrating these incredible tales and woe-filled poems because The Bard truly was great.


Ashleigh Robyn Reeve
Ashleigh Robyn Reeve

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