shakespeare was shakespeare


What, aside from international fame, did Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles have in common? The answer is that they all believed that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare were really written by someone else. The first three belong to the classic “Baconian” era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the claims of Sir Francis Bacon’s authorship were uppermost; and were argued most vociferously in America. Freud and Welles were more modern “Oxfordians”, believing the true author to be Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as first proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920. Chaplin was a floating voter, a generic “anti-Stratfordian”. He did not know who wrote the plays, he explained in his 1964 autobiography, “but I can hardly think it was the boy from Stratford. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude”. These are essentially celebrity endorsements: none of the above, with the possible exception of Freud, could be called a Shakespeare scholar. It is an impressive list but also a very elderly one. One could continue it through to the present day (Malcolm X, Enoch Powell, Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Jim Jarmusch . . .), but those early big names look back to the heyday of the authorship controversy, when the anti-Stratfordian cause seemed daring and even excitingly modern in its challenge to traditional (and, from the American point of view, to English) orthodoxy. And if to many it also seemed barmy, it was a flamboyant, newsworthy sort of barminess. Some of the frontline Baconian theorists were themselves minor celebrities, eccentric exemplars of the epoch’s passion for discovery, on a par with wild-haired inventors and staring-eyed explorers in search of lost cities.

more from Charles Nicholl at the TLS here.