This 1849 vintage print features the portrait of William Shakespeare.

This 1849 vintage print features the portrait of William Shakespeare.Getty

Did you know that for years people have suggested Shakespeare wasn't the true playwright we think him to be? If he didn't write his legendary plays, who did? We look at the main contenders.

Somewhere in Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the greatest craftsman ever to mould the English language into works of art created his masterpieces of poetry and drama. And yet never before has there been doubt as to whether or not the bard is actually behind his greatest works.

The first seed of doubt

All this effort to find a plausible alternative to the orthodox history of the Shakespearean plays stems from the apparent incompatibility between them and the most famous resident of Stratford-upon-Avon, whom theorists often refer to as 'Shaksper' or 'Shakspere' to distinguish him from the true author, who may or may not have been the same individual.

The few documents that have survived from Shaksper's day paint a picture of the Stratford man as an unrefined, possibly even unsavoury character of no apparent education or reputation as a writer. In fact, there is nothing in the surviving local records, other than six signatures in barely legible scrawl, that can be regarded as proof that Shaksper was literate.

It is a common premise of all the alternative author theories that the mundane events described in the surviving records of Shaksper's life argue strongly against his authorship. The townspeople of Stratford are hardly likely, the theorists suppose, to have been ambivalent to the great author's presence among them. Surely some of Stratford's citizens would have left behind impressions of what he was really like, or copies of letters congratulating their famous neighbour on the success of his latest play. Not only are there no indications in the town records that a great dramatist lived in Stratford, there are likewise no books, manuscripts, or other relics that the writer himself might have been expected to leave behind.

An engraved vintage illustration image portrait of the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, from a Victorian book dated 1847 that is no longer in copyright

An engraved vintage illustration image portrait of the Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare, from a Victorian book dated 1847 that is no longer in copyright

Unfortunately, while this dearth of evidence causes suspicions and invites contrary explanations, it also provides little basis by which to judge the validity of these new interpretations. And so it seems that the harder investigators look for a definitive clue, the longer the list of alternative authors grows.

A lack of education and the Bacon theory 

The first theory to explicitly suggest that the Stratford man was not the true author was formally put forward in about 1785. Based on the unexpected scarcity of existing documentation, and on references within the plays themselves that seemed to indicate that the writer was far more educated than Shaksper could have been, Reverend James Wilmot, rector of Barton-on-the-Heath, proposed that Francis Bacon, the aristocratic Elizabethan philosopher, was the true author.

Other theorists agreed with Wilmot's doubts about Shaksper's role but thought that the rector had misinterpreted the evidence for the true author. The three other claimants that have received the most attention are Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby; and Christopher Marlowe, famous in his own right as an outstanding dramatist.

'Claimants' is actually a misnomer for the candidates, because none of them ever explicitly claimed credit for any of the Shakespearean plays. Each, the theorists say, had compelling reasons for publicly disassociating himself from his work. Since drama was considered the crudest form of literature in Elizabethan England and held to be beneath the dignity of an accomplished man of letters, nobles such as Bacon, Oxford, and Derby were often reluctant to admit to dabbling in playwriting.

Incurring Elizabeth's wrath

In addition, an Elizabethan dramatist always ran the risk of incurring the Queen's wrath should any of his plays contain political satire that gave offense to Her Majesty. Only by preserving his anonymity could the true author be sure he would not suffer the consequences of Elizabeth's outrage.

These concerns did influence some Elizabethan dramatists, leading to a subculture of 'concealed poets' among the nobility, but there is no firm evidence that the author of the Shakespearean works was among them. While speculation to this effect has been used to answer some intriguing questions about the authorship of the plays, it must remain only one of many possible explanations, the likelihood of which is uncertain.

Arguably, it is easier to imagine the rustic Shaksper writing these outstanding plays than it is to imagine another author being so ashamed of such a feat that he wouldn't admit to it. Further, a concern about political content seems inappropriate in connection with the Shakespearean works. Overall, the plays' benign, pro-Tudor nature is so pervasive that one group of theorists has even argued that they must have been commissioned (or even written) by Elizabeth herself to serve as pro-government propaganda.

Was Shaksper merely an accomplice?

The case for Christopher Marlowe is based on a different premise. According to Calvin Hoffman, the originator of this theory, Marlowe was already under royal disfavour when he secretly wrote the plays. In order to escape execution, Hoffman says, Marlowe fled to the Continent. His patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham, staged a fake murder so it would appear that Marlowe was dead. The plot was supposedly successful and Marlowe continued to write plays from France, with the Stratford actor serving as a front by which his work could be introduced into England.

The theory is technically feasible, but there is no documentary evidence to support it and it is perhaps most enlightening simply as an example of how easy it is to concoct an explanation that fits the few available facts.

While Hoffman has won over few supporters, many theorists share his idea that Shaksper acted as an accomplice of the true author. This explains some of the apparent difficulties of the traditional interpretation, such as Shaksper's alleged illiteracy, but it presents problems of its own. Even if the true author was justified in fearing damage to his reputation of royal disfavour, to employ Shaksper as an accomplice would have been an unnecessary and dangerous complication. The much simpler, more fool-proof and - assuming Shaksper was paid for his cooperation - cheaper expedient of allowing his plays to remain officially anonymous would have served the same purpose. Further, if Shaksper was really so obviously incapable of writing the plays as the revisionists suggest, he would have made a terrible partner, since such a transparent deception would have been impossible to maintain.

Other theorists, however, suggest that Shaksper did not play even this minor part in the production of the plays. They claim that none of the contemporary references to the Shakespeare of the London stage explicitly identify him as the man born in Stratford, and conclude that the two were not the same person at all. Shakespeare of London, Charlton Ogburn believes, was no more than a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, with no connection at all the Shaksper of Stratford other than the similarity of names.

Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

How important is Shakspere literacy?

This theory explains much of the apparent dissimilarity between the rustic Stratfordian and the sophistication of the artist while avoiding many of the flaws inherent in some of the other theories. There is, however, physical evidence that challenges it. A contemporary document drawn up by the College of Heralds depicts a coat of arms that the Stratford man applied for and identifies it as belonging to 'Shakespear the Player'. Once it is thus proven that Shaksper was the London actor, it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the claim that he was illiterate, since an actor who memorizes his lines by having them dictated to him is rather unlikely. Literacy, in turn, implies a formal education, which is contrary to one of the principal suppositions of the theorists.

Due to the lack of explicit physical evidence linking the plays to one of the claimants, any theories based solely on external clues rest on a weak foundation. The theorists have, therefore, turned to the plays themselves in an effort to discover evidence of the true author's identity. The proponents of each of the major candidates have found passages that are allegedly clues to the writer's identity, either unconsciously left behind by the author or deliberately planted in the texts so that scholars of a later age could penetrate his secret and give him proper credit.

The most exotic of these internal clues are the supposed Baconian ciphers. Originally formulated by Ignatius Donnelly, this theory holds that Bacon, while unable to reveal himself during his own lifetime, put coded messages into his published works to ensure that future generations would honour him. Other Baconians have expanded on Donnelly's ideas and by applying their theories have extracted such hidden messages as 'Shak'st spur never writ a word of them' and 'These plays, the offspring of F. Bacon, are preserved for the world.'

Conclusive as these results might seem, the professional cryptologists W. F. and E. S. Friedman published an exhaustive analysis of the Baconian ciphers in 1957, which demonstrated that none are valid. Even a quick check reveals that at least some of the cryptograms simply don't work, and that the theorists have had to fudge the results in order to get the desired message. Other methods by which Bacon supposedly encoded his messages are so flexible that practically any word or phrase the reader desires can be generated using them.

Lack of knowledge 

But while the plays don't seem to hide secret meanings, they do contain some explicit passages that give theorists reason to doubt that Shaksper could have composed them. These fall into several categories, each demonstrating, according to the theories, that the writer possessed a specialized knowledge in a particular field, such as law, classical literature, courtly etiquette, seamanship, and foreign geography.

Oxfordians tend to emphasize not just the breadth of the author's technical knowledge, but also his apparently extensive knowledge of Oxford's life and family. Many passages in the plays seem to recreate episode's from the Earl's personal history, of which only Edward de Vere himself could have known.

Some of the suggestive 'technical' passages are indeed intriguing, but there is no adequate way to measure their significance. The same lack of information about Shaksper's life that first raised the theorists' doubts makes it impossible to say for sure that he did not acquire even the most unlikely expertise -- by working in a law office, or travelling to the Continent with his acting troupe, or consulting reference books on any of the suspicious topics. It is also questionable just how specialized this knowledge really was because many of Shakespeare's contemporaries made use of similar details in their own work.

Illustration of The Original Globe Theatre

Illustration of The Original Globe Theatre

Orthodox Shakespearean scholars have also demonstrated the ambiguity of the textual clues by identifying scenes that arguably could only have been written by someone of common birth, and the Shakespearean scholar H. N. Gibson has identified a number of episodes that seem to mirror Shaksper's life as closely as other's match Oxford's. The fact that such contradictory conclusions can be gleaned from the texts demonstrates that they cannot be relied upon as definitive evidence of authorship.

While many orthodox scholars concede that there is some room for doubt in the record of William Shaksper of Stratford, support for alternate author theories has not yet gone beyond opinions based on interpretations of ambiguous clues and come to rest on the evidence of an explicit nature. Until it does, it would be rash to rewrite the history books.

* Originally published in June 2006.