Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

Posted by on Mar 3, 2014

Many arguments, ranging from intriguing to outrageous, suggest that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays that bear his name. I am often asked my position on the matter.

Like my heroine Kate Stanley, I’m with Dickens, who once wrote: “It is a great comfort that so little is known concerning Shakespeare. He’s a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something should come out.”

That said, here’s how I weigh what we know against what we don’t:

Guilty or Not?

Imagine William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, in court, accused of having written the plays called “Shakespeare’s.” Were I on the jury in a civil trial, asked to decide the question according to the preponderance of evidence, I would judge him guilty: he wrote them. The overwhelming bulk of evidence – not least the fact that the plays bear his name – supports that conclusion.

However, were I sitting on the jury in a capital criminal trial, asked to judge guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” I would have to vote “not guilty.” With his life hanging in the balance, I could not say that the actor William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote those plays beyond the shadow of a doubt. It’s not very likely that someone else did, and the three most popular alternate candidates — Bacon, Oxford and Marlowe — are non-starters for me: Bacon because he left voluminous writings that are incontrovertibly his, none of it sounding remotely like Shakespeare, and Oxford because he died ten years before Shakespeare stopped writing plays. Marlowe died just as Shakespeare started. Nevertheless, to my eyes, there is a crack in the door, just enough of a dark sliver of mystery to leave room for wonder.

I, for one, am glad that it is so. But others feel differently, and with passion. In the end, I find the passions that the question arouses as fascinating as the question itself.

Two fine and fun-to-read books:

James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010)

  • A professor of English at Columbia University, Shapiro is an eminent Shakespearean scholar and an excellent writer.

John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?
(London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996)

  • The best overview over the arguments leaning toward the “anti-Stratfordian” side. More quirky Shakespeareana than you knew existed.


Where to start online:


Max Beerbohm
“William Shakespeare,
his method of work”
The Poets’ Corner (London, 1904)

Three non-partisan sites:
A firm Stratfordian rebuttal:


Alternate Candidates:

  • Edward de Vere, 16th Earl of Oxford
  • Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban
  • Christopher Marlowe
  • William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby


Fringe Proposals:

  • Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
  • Queen Elizabeth I
  • Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland
  • Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton
  • Robert Devereaux, 2nd Earl of Essex
  • Sir Walter Raleigh
  • Saint Edmund Campion
  • Sir Henry Neville
  • Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
    • beheaded in 1547, 44 years before the first known performance of a Shakespearean play
  • Daniel Defoe
    • born about 70 years after that first known performance

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