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Did Shakespeare Write ‘Shakespeare’? Much Ado About Nothing


Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 35.6, November/December 2011

ink and quill

Anti-Stratfordians start with the answer they want and work backward to the evidence—the opposite of good science and scholarship. They reverse the standards of objective inquiry, replacing them with pseudoscience and pseudohistory.

Could a mere commoner have been the greatest and most admired playwright of the English language? Indeed, could a “near-illiterate” have amassed the “encyclopedic” knowledge that fills page after page of plays and poetry attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon? Those known as “anti-Stratfordians” insist the works were penned by another, one more worthy in their estimation, as part of an elaborate conspiracy that may even involve secret messages encrypted in the text.

Now, there are serious, scholarly questions relating to Shakespeare’s authorship, as I learned while doing graduate work at the University of Kentucky and teaching an undergraduate course, Survey of English Literature. For a chapter of my dissertation, I investigated the questioned attribution of the play Pericles to see whether it was a collaborative effort (as some scholars suspected, seeing a disparity in style between the first portion, acts I and II, and the remainder) or—as I found, taking an innovative approach— entirely written by Shakespeare (see Nickell 1987, 82–108). However, such literary analysis is quite different from the efforts of the anti-Stratfordians, who are mostly nonacademics and, according to one critic (Keller 2009, 1–9), “pseudo-scholars.”

Through-the-Looking-Glass Syndrome

Like many other crank ideas and conspiracy theories, the notion that William Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems attributed to him may at first sight seem absurd. But step through the looking glass (to use Lewis Carroll’s term) and adopt the farfetched premise, and things can look very different. By thus starting with the answer and working backward to the evidence—the opposite of the approaches of science and scholarship—one can seemingly reverse the burden of proof and mirror the development of a viable hypothesis.

I call this process the Through-the-Looking-Glass Syndrome because the individual who suffers from such a bout of contagion has entered a realm in which the very standards of objective inquiry are effectively reversed, becoming their superficial lookalikes: pseudoscience, pseudohistory, and so on.

People are drawn into this illusory world, it appears to me, by something other than impartial reason. Having investigated questionable claims for more than four decades, I have marveled at how certain persons have walked, been lured, or stumbled headlong into some strange but profound belief. For example, time and again someone has been so attracted to the “haunting” image on the Shroud of Turin that he will not accept it as the red- ocher (iron-oxide) pigmented work of a confessed fourteenth-century artist, which has been confirmed by microchemical tests and radiocarbon dating. Wishfully believing that the cloth really wrapped the body of Jesus in the tomb, he sees the forger’s confession as false, the iron-oxide as a contaminant, and the carbon-dating as an error resulting perhaps from a burst of radiant energy that altered the carbon ratio at the moment of Christ’s miraculous resurrection (Hoare 1994; cf. Nickell 1998).

Countless more examples could be given. Anthropologist Grover Krantz believed that Bigfoot—indeed as portrayed in the famously faked Roger Patterson “Bigsuit” film of 1967— was the surviving giant ape Gigantopithecus. Harvard psychiatrist John Mack ignored evidence of his patients’ fantasy proneness and “waking dreams” to suggest they had been abducted by aliens. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the rationalist detective Sherlock Holmes, was easily duped both by séance trickery and schoolgirls’ hoaxed fairy photos (Nickell 2011, 68–72; Nickell 2007, 251–58; Nickell 1994, 153, 175–76).

As we see, many of the proponents of such ideas are quite intelligent. However, it seems that—just as in jujitsu when one’s large size becomes a liability once one has been thrown off balance—a person’s own intelligence can work against him when he is under the spell of the Through-the-Looking-Glass Syndrome: the intelligent person may be able to think up rationalizations and theoretical complexities of breathtaking cleverness, fooling first himself, then others. So it is with the Shakespeare-wasn’t-written-by-Shakespeare minions, as we shall see.

Stage Left: The Baconians

For nearly two centuries after his death, Shakespeare went unquestioned as the author of the plays and poems bearing his name. The first recorded doubter was a Reverend James Wilmot who—having undertaken to write a biography of the Bard but being unable to turn up a single original manuscript in Stratford—expressed his suspicions to a Quaker acquaintance, who reported them to his local Philosophical Society in Ipswich in 1805. In 1848, Colonel Joseph C. Hart published a book on seafaring that also included his notions on various other topics. Hart despised Shakespeare, whom he accused of buying or stealing plays that he “first spiced with obscenity, blackguardism and impurities before they were produced”; he felt the admirable portions, such as Hamlet’s soliloquies, were attributable to another (keller 2009, 138–41).

The first book-length assault on the Bard was launched in 1857 by a woman named Delia Bacon. Her 675-page The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded cast Shakespeare as “a stupid, ignorant, third-rate player” in a “dirty, doggish group of players.” Surely he could not have written the great works bearing his name, she concluded. Rather, Bacon (the sister of Congregational minister Leonard Bacon) believed the works must have been produced by a secret society of literary figures with Sir Walter Raleigh (1552– 1618) as head and Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) as guiding light. She believed, wrongly, that she was descended from the latter. So fanatical was Delia Bacon that she once spent a troubled night, armed with lantern and spade, at Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church planning to literally dig for answers. Believing she had deciphered cryptic messages in Francis Bacon’s letters that pointed to certain secrets—perhaps even manuscripts—hidden in a hollow beneath the gravestone, she fully intended to excavate but then struggled with her supposed evidence and finally lost her nerve. She died insane at age forty-eight (Keller 2009, 141–42; Schoenbaum 1991, 385–94).

Figure 1Figure 1. The 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works.

Delia Bacon had set the stage, as it were, for subsequent “Baconians”—those who became convinced Sir Francis Bacon had indeed written as “Shakespeare.” Enter a Minnesota crank named Ignatius T. Donnelly, who had previously “proved” that both Aztecs and Egyptians descended from a race that inhabited the (imaginary) “lost continent” of Atlantis. Donnelly pored over a copy of Shakespeare’s complete plays, the 1623 First Folio (see figure 1), and divined certain mathematical formulas (involving a set of “basic numbers” and “factor numbers”) that let him “decipher” supposed messages from the text. When the result was gibberish, as it often was, Donnelly modified the rules, which made cryptographers quick to laugh at his approach. “They pointed out,” explains code master Fletcher Pratt (1942, 87), “that his rules for solution were practically all variables, and that his solution in fact consisted of finding whatever words he wished to make up part of his ‘decipherment’ and then finding some combination of basic numbers and factor-numbers that would yield the desired result. Given so many variables it is possible to extract almost any message from a wordage as large as Shakespeare’s. . . .”

Nevertheless, other Baconians followed. Orville Ward Owen, a physician in Detroit, caught the bug and spent the remainder of his life utilizing his own supposedly improved method of decipherment. One of Owen’s divined Baconian messages urged, “Take your knife and cut all our books asunder, And set the leaves on a great firm wheel/ which rolls and rolls.” Inspired, Owen constructed two massive reels, turned by (appropriately) a crank, which unrolled a thousand-foot canvas. Mounted in rows on this were the printed pages of text from Shakespeare, Bacon, and others. Owen or a member of his three-woman staff operated the machine using “key” words to extricate text dictated to a typist. In time Owen published five of his six volumes of Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story. Still later he received communications from Bacon’s ghost (Schoenbaum 1991, 411–13).

Owen’s secretary, Elizabeth Wells Gallup, next launched her own unique method of deciphering Bacon’s supposedly concealed messages. She in fact employed a “biliteral cipher” actually invented by Bacon. (One of the ciphers I studied as a budding cryptanalyst of about twelve, it employs two fonts of printing type, say, roman and italic, which we can designate a and b. The text that will carry the secret text is marked off in five-letter units, so that the letter A can be represented by aaaaa, B by aaaab, and so on [see Gaines 1956, 6– 7].)

Unfortunately, Gallup’s supposed decipherments were subjected to detailed analysis, most thoroughly by the famous American code experts Colonel William and Elizabeth Fried man, with devastating results. The type of Elizabethan times bore imperfections, became battered, was often mixed indiscriminately, which—coupled with the effect of rough paper and other factors—meant that “differences” in type could easily be found, even where none existed (Pratt 1942, 90–91). As Shakespearean scholar Samuel Schoenbaum (1991, 419) says of Gallup, “What she had discovered was not a biliteral cipher but a biliteral Rorschach test.” Moreover, the revealed text bore words that were not in use until after Bacon’s death. Gallup did admit, at one point, that to distinguish between a and b typefaces, it was necessary to use “intuition” (Pratt 1942, 91–92). The entire quest of the Baconians to find secret texts in Shakespeare’s writings is reminiscent of journalist Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code books (1997; 2002), which tout “predictions” of modern events that were allegedly “encoded” in the Hebrew Bible about three thousand years ago. (See Thomas 2003 for a rebuttal.)

Marlowe et al.

Although there is no convincing evidence that Bacon ever wrote a single play, there were many adherents to the Bacon-as-Shakespeare “theory.” However, that conviction was eventually followed by a Marlovian craze—the belief that Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), the greatest Elizabethan dramatist prior to Shakespeare, penned “Shakespeare.” The fact that Marlowe was killed in a tavern fight before the majority of the Bard’s plays had been written did not faze the Marlovians. Having stepped through the looking glass, their chief advocate, a Broadway press agent named Calvin Hoffman, conjured up an explanation.

Marlowe’s death, Hoffman imagined, was staged by killing some foreign sailor in his stead, while Marlowe fled via France to Italy where he began to write plays before eventually returning to England in disguise. Everything was supposedly arranged by his aristocratic gay lover who hired an actor, Will Shakespeare, to allow his name to grace the manuscript. This imagined scenario was, said the Times Literary Supplement (January 24, 1956), “a tissue of twaddle,” but surely the reviewer was being too kind (Schoenbaum 1991, 445–47).

Beyond Marlowe, some seventy other candidates have been proposed, ranging from Sir Walter Raleigh, Cardinal Wolsey, and Ben Jonson to various earls—of Darby, of Essex, of Rutland, and, of course, of Southampton (the latter having been Shakespeare’s patron)— and even Queen Elizabeth I (Wilson 1993, 15–20; Keller 2009, 135–36 Schoenbaum 1991, 395–404). Then there is the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the current favorite of the anti- Stratfordians.

The Earl of Oxford

In 1920, an english schoolmaster with the unfortunate name J. Thomas Looney published his “Shakespeare” Identified, setting forth the claim that the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (1550–1604), was the true author of the plays and poems bearing Shakespeare’s name. Intellectually naive, the book unsurprisingly attracted many followers.

The Loonies adopted “Oxford” as their standard bearer even though he had died before King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and several other plays were performed. They postulate that scholars misdated Lear and Macbeth and that the other plays, having been left unfinished, were subsequently completed by inferior dramatists (Schoenbaum 1991, 430–34).

Their evidence for Oxford as author is as questionable as their belief is impassioned. They discovered, for example, in a 1578 address to Oxford by fellow poet Gabriel Harvey, a tell-tale clue: Harvey says, “Thine eyes flash fire, thy will shakes spears…” [emphasis added]—an unmistakable reference to the Bard! Unfortunately, this is a rogue translation of the Latin, which really just says, “Thine eyes flash fire. Thy countenance shakes a spear” (Keller 2009, 162–64).

One Oxfordian of the 1940s even enlisted the aid of a spiritualist. The medium used “automatic writing” to link Shakespeare, Bacon, and Oxford, who supposedly had collaborated to produce the plays (Wilson 1993, 19–20).

Oxfordians believe the Earl of Oxford adopted “William Shakespeare” as a pen name. That the hyphenated version is used for about half of the quarto editions of the plays led one recent Oxfordian, Charles Ogborn Jr., to write in 2009, “When we come upon a regularly hyphenated English name compounding two words not in themselves names and also descriptive of an action, we may be sure that the name is fictitious and intended to be understood as of allegorical significance.” This is absurd and begs the question, why then was not the hyphenated spelling used for all printed versions of the plays? In fact, creative phonetic spelling was common in Shakespeare’s time, as evidenced, for example, by such different versions as Will, Willm, William, Willelmum, etc., and Shakspere, Shackspere, Shaxpere, Shagspere, Shakespear, Shake-speare, and Shakespeare; likewise, there were eleven different versions of Christopher Marlowe’s surname (Keller 2009, 156–57).

In 1987 a moot-court debate on the Oxford-versus-Shakespeare controversy was held at the American University. It was presided over by three U.S. Supreme Court Justices: Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens. They found in favor of Shakespeare, and Justice Stevens pointedly concluded that “the Oxfordian case suffers from not having a single, coherent theory of the case” (qtd. in Bethell 1991, 47).

Will the Real Shakespeare…

painting of Shakespeare

Or this heading could read, “Will, the real Shakespeare.”

Although the anti-Stratfordians savage Shakespeare (but resent any criticism of themselves or their candidate for authorship), the fact is that there is no proof (innuendo and coincidence and mystery mongering are not proof) that “Shakespeare” was written by anyone other than William Shakespeare. And there is much evidence that he was indeed the author.

The famous individual of that name was a historical personage born at Stratford in 1564 and christened (according to the Holy Trinity Church baptismal register) on April 26: “Guliel mus filius Johannes Shakspere”—that is, translating from the Latin, “William, son of John Shakspere” (Schoenbaum 1991, 7–8). While there is no record of Shakespeare attending Stratford’s grammar school, there is no record of anyone doing so prior to the nineteenth century (Matus 1991, 66); old records are frequently incomplete or missing (as I learned during my years as a certified geneaological specialist). A marriage license was issued on November 27, 1582, to “Willelmum Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton”— the clerk apparently mis-hearing the bride’s surname, which was Hathaway; the matter was resolved by a bond of the next day for “Anne Hathwey” to wed “William Shagspere.” Subsequent records list the baptism of their eldest daughter Susanna (in 1583) and twins, Hamnet and Judith (1585) (Schoenbaum 1991, 10–12).

From 1585–1592 transpired the somewhat misnamed “lost years,” during which Shakespeare was known to have been in London. In 1592 Robert Green alerted his fellow dramatists to Shakespeare as a young literary encroacher, calling him

. . . an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide [quoting from Shakespeare’s Henry VI1] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse [unrhymed iambic pentameter] as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum [Jack-of-all-trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in the country.

The pun on his name, coupled with the readily identifiable line, represents the earliest mention of Shakespeare as an actor and playwright (Wilson 1993, 124–25).

Additional evidence reveals the continuing life of a very real person:

For instance, Shakespeare is by no means without background documentation, albeit mostly of a dry-as-dust legal variety. With occasional exceptions, the christenings, marriages and deaths of the close members of his family are all to be found in the still-extant registers of his home parish church, Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon. As record of his life as a successful working actor, his name appears high in Ben Jonson’s First Folio’s cast lists of the performances of some of Jonson’s plays by Shakespeare’s company. In the case of some, but by no means all, of Shakespeare’s plays as published in his lifetime, his name is linked with them formally both on the title page and on the surviving official register of the Stationers’ Company, the official trade union of the booksellers and printers of his time. London Public Record Office documents show him to have acted as witness in a court case, complete with his authenticated signature to this effect. Also in London’s Public Record Office and elsewhere are to be found deeds of his property dealings (with two more of his signatures), the wills of his London fellow actors and Stratford friends, which include some kindly remembrances of him, and his own will, the latter of which bears the final three of the six signatures generally agreed as authentically his. (Wilson 1993, 9)

William Shakespeare died about April 23, 1616, and was buried on April 25. In 1623 the famous First Folio of his plays, collected by fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, was published (again, see figure 1), showing a body of work so impressive that many believe it must be the work not of a commoner but an aristocrat.

How did the Bard acquire the vast learning shown in his writings? Shakespeare’s inherent genius would have been supplemented by a serious education in grammar school (where he would have learned some Latin and Greek) and later residence in London, Britain’s intellectual center, where he obviously read omnivorously. Himself an actor, as well as a shareholder in an acting company and a theater, he befriended many playwrights, poets, scholars, travelers, gentlemen, and others (Keller 2009, 12, 271)—sources of knowledge indeed. (Nevertheless, Shakespeare did not always get things right: for example, he gave Bohemia a seacoast and put clocks in ancient Rome [Evans 1949].)

Oxfordians wonder at the absence of any manuscripts, letters, or diaries in Shakespeare’s handwriting, but there is a general lack of such materials from Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists (Keller 2009, 4). They apparently placed little value on keeping such items, since collecting literary autographs did not become a serious endeavor until the latter part of the eighteenth century (Matus 1991, 70).

To sum up, there really was a Shakespeare, and to believe that someone else wrote the plays and poems bearing his name—that there was in fact a conspiracy to perpetrate an elaborate hoax—is to gratuitously violate the principle of Occam’s razor, the dictum that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred.

But those who have stepped through the looking glass will not be dissuaded. As Schoenbaum (1991, 451) notes, nothing “will erase suspicions fostered over a century by amateurs who have yielded to the dark power of the anti-Stratfordian obsession. One thought perhaps offers a crumb of redeeming comfort: the energy absorbed by the mania might otherwise have gone into politics.”


1. From part III, act I, scene iv, line 137. Shakespeare’s correct wording is “O tiger’s heart wrapt in a woman’s hide!”


Bethell, Tom. 1991. The case for Oxford. The Atlantic Monthly October: 45–61.

Drosnin, Michael. 1997. The Bible Code. New York: Simon & Schuster.

———. 2002. The Bible Code II. New York: Viking Press.

Evans, Bergen. 1949. Cited in Keller 2009, 48–49.

Gaines, Helen Fouché. 1956. Cryptanalysis: A Study of Ciphers and Their Solution. New York: Dover.

Hoare, Rodney. 1994. The Turin Shroud Is Genuine. London: Souvenir Press.

Keller, Frederick A. 2009. Spearing the Wild Blue Boar—Shakespeare vs. Oxford: The Authorship Question. New York: iUniverse, Inc.

Matus, Irvin. 1991. The case for Shakespeare. The Atlantic Monthly October: 64–72.

Nickell, Joe. 1987. Literary investigation: Texts, sources, and “factual” substructs of literature and interpretation. Doctoral dissertation, Lexington: University of Kentucky.

———. 1994. Camera Clues. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.

———. 1998. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

———. 2007. Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

———. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

Ogborn, Charles. 2009. Quoted in Keller 2009, 157.

Pratt, Fletcher. 1994. Secret and Urgent: The Story of Codes and Ciphers. Garden City, New York: Blue Ribbon Books.

Schoenbaum, S[amuel]. 1991. Shakespeare Lives. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thomas, David E. 2003. It’s ba-a-ack! The Bible Code II (book review). Skeptical Inquirer 27(2) (March/April): 59–60.

Wilson, Ian. 1993. Shakespeare, The Evidence: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and His Work. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at