The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy


One of the saddest and least helpful aspects of the Shakespeare authorship controversy is the mud-slinging indulged in by advocates of both ‘sides’ – the so-called ‘Stratfordians’ who represent the orthodox traditional viewpoint that the Stratford-upon-Avon actor William Shakespeare wrote the Shakespeare plays, and the ‘anti-Stratfordians’ (I prefer the term ‘non-Stratfordians’) who reckon that the actor did not actually write the plays himself but was a mask for the true author or authors. Not everyone involved in this controversy is guilty of such behaviour by any means, but those that are usually make the headlines in the media.

Particularly unhelpful, I find, are those who really should know and act better because of the position they hold in academia, as official representatives of supposedly open-minded, careful, serious research and education. If the case for the actor William Shakespeare being the author was in fact crystal clear, it should be easy to refute counter-arguments with good evidence and logical argument. Yet all too often professors, academics and certain others professing the orthodox viewpoint not only make claim to absolute authority on this matter but also do their best to denigrate in any way possible anyone who dares to put forward counter-evidence or alternative arguments. Often, in doing this, they display not only an offensive type of ‘racial discrimination’ (i.e. the orthodox race versus the unorthodox) but also sometimes a wilful ignorance or twisting of facts. The media then usually delight to play this up and make the matter even worse, adding into the story their own often prejudiced and badly-researched comments and accusations. Some would say this is good drama, therefore good selling matter, but on the whole it seems to me to be neither a friendly nor a helpful scenario, and tends to create antagonisms and stifle what could otherwise be a co-operative effort to discover not only things still hidden but even the truth itself.

Not only is there a rigorous taboo against the querying of the Shakespeare authorship within our British universities, but it has become fairly common practice amongst the champions of the Stratfordian establishment to dismiss all challengers to the dogmatic orthodox viewpoint (who are normally only free to question such dogma outside academia) as unscholarly heretics, using easily-said and quickly-believed words to slander both the living and the dead. For instance, according to The Times (1 June 2005), which carried an article by Jack Malvern entitled ‘Class War over Shakespeare’ plus a snide and rather offensive editorial entitled ‘Smoked Bacon’, either all non-Stratfordians are loonies, or are snobs who think only an aristocrat could have written the plays.

Such slanderous and ill-informed opinions are repeated by others, such as Ann Thompson, professor of English at King’s College London and an editor of the Arden Shakespeare series. In commenting on the new book, The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare, written (remarkably) by academics Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein, Professor Thomson has told Reuters (as reported in Long Island Press) that to doubt Shakespeare’s authorship because of his lack of formal education and familiarity with the ways of the court is ‘snobbery, basically… People think you would have to have a university education at least to write as he does’. Margaret Drabble, in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford UP, 1985, p.891), states that: ‘Over 200 years after Shakespeare died, doubts were raised about the authenticity of his works. The product largely of snobbery...they are best answered by the facts that the monument to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon compares him with Socrates and Virgil, and that Jonson’s verses in the Folio identify the author of that volume as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon.’

The Week (15 October 2005) carries an article, ‘The Real Shakespeare,’ synthesising some of the media’s recent comments on the James-Rubinstein book, The Truth Will Out, and adding (in a highlighted inset) the oft-repeated misrepresentations of Delia Bacon as ‘a dotty American spinster’ who was ‘no relation [i.e. of Francis Bacon], though she claimed otherwise’. It went on to add dismissively that ‘Other Baconians included Dr Orville Owen, a physician in late 19th century Detroit, who, guided by his contacts in the spirit world, discovered not only that Bacon had written all of Shakespeare’s plays, but that, if these and Bacon’s other writings were pasted on to a 1,000 ft strip of canvas and rotated round wooden spools at high speed, they would reveal a coded message stating that Bacon was Queen Elizabeth’s love-child and heir to the English throne’. Oxfordians are similarly dismissed by referring disparagingly to the ‘Gateshead schoolmaster who rejoiced in the name J. Thomas Looney’, who (reputedly) launched the Oxfordian movement.

Not content with the usual charges made against non-Stratfordians as being misguided, unscholarly snobs and loonies, Roger Pringle, director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, makes the implication that they are driven by greed of material wealth. He was recently reported as saying, ‘Given the amount of documentation showing William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays one can only suppose that the conspiracy theorists are in it for the money they can make out of peddling their bizarre wares’.

With this latter charge one can only suppose that Pringle has not experienced being the author of a book challenging a powerful and publicly-supported orthodoxy, which has taken years of generally unpaid and painstaking research and writing, and which sells (if the book is lucky enough to be published) a meagre few thousand copies, often at discounted rates. He is also spectacularly exaggerating the amount of documentation that exists which supposedly shows that the Stratford actor wrote the plays, and none of which actually proves such a thesis.

As to the other charges, I can only say that I have met many remarkable and highly intelligent people in this field of endeavour, all of whom have noticed glaring discrepancies in the orthodox version of the Shakespeare story and who are devoted to uncovering the real truth. What they (including myself) interpret from their researches may not always or necessarily be the truth, but they have uncovered many things previously unknown and opened the way to a far wider and more comprehensive appreciation not only of the plays themselves but also of the whole of the English Renaissance. Loony they are not, although that is not to say that some people do not suffer and have suffered various sicknesses and nervous breakdowns at some time in their lives, or are sometimes driven by their passion for truth to be over-ardent and part-blinded in their beliefs; but this applies to Stratfordians as well as to non-Stratfordians.

The unfair aspersion thrown against Delia Bacon (and by inference all Baconians), that she was loony, misses the historic truth that until the last two years of her life she had been as charming and as sane as any single-minded and devoted person could be. For most of her life she was well known to her friends in America as an extremely intelligent, charming and rather reserved person, who was an excellent teacher, with a fine memory. Theodore Bacon described her as a woman ‘of rare intellectual force and acuteness, of absolute sincerity and truthfulness, of self-annihilating earnestness and devotion in whatever work she entered upon’. One of her students said of Delia that she was ‘graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvellously wise, and full of inspiration, she looked and spoke the very muse of history… No one could know and appreciate Delia Bacon without placing her in his estimation among the most highly endowed women whom he ever saw or heard of.’ Delia made a great personal impression on such men as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Delia was a pioneer and a brave woman, who broke through into a far greater appreciation of the Shakespeare works than had hitherto been achieved. She discovered the great philosophy that lies behind and within the plays, which gives them rhyme and reason for existing in the first place; but having discovered this she realised that the author was not the actor. She was not a Baconian in the strict sense of the word, although people charge her with being one. She did not claim that Francis Bacon was the author ‘Shakespeare’ as such, but rather that he was the leader of a group of poets and writers who produced the Shakespeare plays as the working models of the fourth part of Bacon’s Great Instauration.

None of this is in any way far-fetched, as those who derogate Delia and other Baconians try to make out. Francis Bacon did indeed lead a group of writers and poets, many of whom acted as amanuenses, as can be discovered from reading the historical records that exist; and Bacon did claim that he had provided working models for the fourth part of his great philosophical scheme. It was his literary studio that produced what has become known as the Northumberland Manuscript, discovered in 1867, comprising a collection of manuscripts pre-dating spring 1597 that originally included two Shakespeare plays, Richard II and Richard III, a Nashe play, The Isle of Dogs, and what sounds like an unknown play, Asmund and Cornelia, amongst other works known to be by Francis Bacon. A cover sheet lists the original contents, together with various ‘scribbles’ that include the names of Bacon and Shakespeare variously written eight or nine times, the name of Neville (probably Bacon’s nephew, Sir Henry Neville) written once, together with a pun on his family motto, and the name of Francis’ brother Anthony. There is also a line from the Shakespeare poem, Lucrece.    

The existence of the working models of the fourth part of Bacon’s Great Instauration is a mystery, for Bacon made it clear in his writings that they had been provided by him, but they do not exist signed by him as Francis Bacon. These ‘types and models’ were said by Bacon to be supplied as ‘examples of enquiry and invention’ according to his method, ‘by which the entire fabric and order of invention from the beginning to the end, in certain subjects, and those various and remarkable, should be set as it were before the eyes’.[1] He further explained that the model he was describing was analogous to the machines used in mathematics that made it easier to follow the demonstration; only, in this case, the purpose of his model or ‘machine’ was not to demonstrate mathematics but to show the entire process of the mind and the whole fabric and order of invention (i.e. imagination).

The chosen subjects that Bacon wished to set before the eyes are, therefore, all-encompassing and by no means restricted to the subjects of natural philosophy, as most people who have studied, talked or written about Bacon have assumed. The processes of the mind are metaphysical, not physical, and they involve both emotions and thoughts. In fact, Bacon considered that it was the emotions that should be primarily studied, as being the driving force and cause of all else, with the ultimate object of such study being to discover everything possible about and put into practice the supreme or summary law, divine love.

‘For the principles, fountains, causes, and forms of motions, that is, the appetites and passions of every kind of matter, are the proper objects of philosophy.’[2]

‘It may be asked (in the way of doubt rather than objection) whether I speak of natural philosophy only, or whether I mean that the other sciences, logic, ethics, and politics, should be carried on by this method. Now I certainly mean what I have said to be understood of them all; and as the common logic, which governs by the syllogism, extends not only to natural but to all sciences; so does mine also, which proceeds by induction, embrace everything. For I form a history and tables of discovery for anger, fear, shame, and the like; for matters political; and again for the mental operations of memory, composition and division, judgement and the rest; not less than for heat or cold, or light, or vegetation, or the like.’[3]

The key to this is drama. Bacon’s working model is ‘dramatic poetry’, with the theatre as the laboratory – a laboratory of emotion and thought; for Bacon considered drama to be the best means to show to the eye the emotions, thoughts, ethics, logic and politics of life, and what actions they lead to, so that they can be seen, felt and understood.

Delia Bacon’s great tome on the subject was The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, published in 1857. It was intended to be followed by a second book, but whilst visiting England she became desperately ill and died before she could write it. Unfortunately for her (and us), she was a speaker rather than a writer, and so her book, unedited, is difficult to read; but it is actually full of the most profound thought and lucid arguments. Many people, including Mark Twain, have been deeply affected and influenced by her propositions. I myself have come to similar conclusions, albeit by a course of enquiry independent of Delia’s. Furthermore, contrary to what has been said by her recent detractors, she never claimed any direct connection with the family of Francis Bacon.

Not only has Delia been treated badly by those who are obviously ignorant of the facts, but so too has Dr Orville Owen, another American. Orville may or may not have discovered a genuine cipher in the Bacon and Shakespeare works – that is, actually, still open to question – but he certainly did not discover any cipher by virtue of rotating ‘round wooden spools at high speed’ on which, via canvas strips, the pages were pasted. This wheel method was for entirely practical purposes, to enable access to as many different pages in as fast a time as possible and compare them one to another. The supposed cipher, on the other hand, is contained in the text and is accessed by means of certain key words that Dr Orville claimed to have recognised. Whether what he discovered as a cipher is accurate, I cannot say for certain, but I have spent a lot of time checking up wherever possible the veracity of the historical information that the decipherment threw up, and a very large proportion of it proves to be accurate or certainly highly possible. The cipher indications that Francis Bacon might have been the son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, for instance, are not without historical foundation, as I and many others have found by researching State papers, ambassadorial and private letters, various other documents and even clear hints left by Bacon himself and his friends in printed works.[4] It is possible, and therefore not to be dismissed lightly, for it opens up whole new perspectives on what was, in fact, a highly secretive and autocratically controlled period in English history, and makes sense of what many people have thought, that the author of Hamlet knew what it was like to be a prince.

Contrary to what many Stratfordians would have us all believe, it was quite possible to keep a secret in those days, and the more important, powerful and closer to the throne that secret was, the more likely that it would be kept. Secret plans or agreements were and still are a normal part of life, and occur in all walks of life. Some are amiable and some are dangerous, the latter being known as conspiracies. Because of the many conspiracies threatening the throne and government, the Elizabethan intelligence service was set up. It became one of the best intelligence networks in Europe in the 16th/17th centuries, and was itself, naturally, a secret service, sworn to silence, working on behalf of the government. It is only in recent decades that enough information has been gleaned from the scanty and dispersed records that have managed to survive, to put together a clearer picture of the network: who was in it and who did what, when and how. Importantly to note is that both Francis and Anthony Bacon had key positions in this secret service (and ran it in the 1590’s), that Christopher Marlowe was one of the spies, and that the service fed information to the Queen via either Burghley or Essex.

It was the Essex group, which included Southampton, the Sidneys and the Pembrokes, who were the patrons of the poets associated with Shakespeare and of Shakespeare himself, whoever he might have been. Just from this, one can see that Shakespeare was associated with those who shared secrets, and who were powerful members of society. To dismiss the possibility of the Shakespeare authorship, or aspects of it, as being a well-kept secret, and using the term ‘conspiracy’ to do this, is blatantly biased and unfair. I think it is fairly obvious to anyone that ‘Shakespeare’ is not about a conspiracy (i.e. ‘a secret plan or agreement to carry out an illegal or harmful act’ – Collins English Dictionary); but there are many reasons to consider that it was a secret designed for purposes beneficial to society.

The charge of snobbery against non-Stratfordians is particularly weird, because the accusers thereby miss the whole point of the argument. It is not a question of whether a person was of one social class or another which is the issue, but a question of evidence – the evidence of the plays and poems themselves, and also of other insinuating documents and clues. For instance, in a book called Polimanteia, published by the Cambridge University authorities in 1595 and written by ‘W. C.’ (usually assumed to be William Clerke), Shakespeare is identified as a Cambridge graduate.

When I brought this up at a public debate on the authorship issue in Bath some years ago, Professor Jonathan Bates abruptly dismissed the evidence by saying that the treatise in question named many people who were not university graduates and obviously Shakespeare was one of them; but, again, this badly missed or ignored the point. W.C. wrote specifically to honour the famous alumni of Oxford and Cambridge universities and the Inns of Court. Twenty-nine alumni, most of them contemporaries of Shakespeare, are listed, plus twenty learned foreign and classical poets to whom the English alumni are favourably compared, plus six founders of universities. Shakespeare, being English, has to be one of the alumni; and, in fact, he is listed in the margin adjacent to text that names Spenser (Cambridge) and Daniel (Oxford). His name appears in such a way that it links it and his poetry with that of Marlowe, and he is called ‘Watson’s heir’ (i.e. Thomas Watson, the famous Oxford alumnus and poet, who died just before the publication of Polimanteia). This evidence, when compared with the text of the Shakespeare poems and plays, makes sense, for the latter, besides being loaded with academic learning and a strange preoccupation with university life, employ specific Cambridge university jargon and refer to specific college incidents and customs in such a way that the only logical conclusion is that the author Shakespeare studied at and was a graduate of Cambridge University. Moreover, it doesn’t stop there, because one can likewise find specific jargon and reference to incidents peculiar to the Inns of Court, which drop naturally from the author’s mind regardless of what character or country or episode in history he is portraying.

In any case, reverting to the charge of aristocratic snobbery, it is a mistaken belief that the Bacon family per se were aristocrats in the strict sense of the word (i.e. nobility), although they were aristocrats in the looser meaning, as belonging to a well-educated class of people considered to be outstanding in certain spheres of activity and associated with government. Sir Nicholas Bacon, the father of Anthony and Francis, was knighted and made Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, but that was a temporary aristocratic position associated with his office as a chief minister of the Queen’s government. Francis Bacon was knighted at the age of forty-two on the accession of King James I to the throne of England in 1603; before this he was merely a gentleman. He was, moreover, only given his titles of Baron Verulam and Viscount St Alban, together with the ministerial ones of Lord Keeper and Lord Chancellor, at the end of his life, long after the Shakespeare plays were written. His titles were for him only, not to be passed on in the family. Anthony Bacon was neither knighted nor ennobled, and thus remained a member of the gentry all his life. His half-brother Nicholas (Sir Nicholas Bacon’s eldest son by his first marriage) was, however, in 1611 created premier baronet of England and this baronetcy is still held by his descendants. Sir Nicholas Bacon’s brother-in-law, Sir William Cecil, uncle to Francis and Anthony Bacon, was created the 1st Baron Burghley, and Burghley’s favourite son, Robert Cecil, became the 1st Earl of Salisbury as well as Lord Treasurer, like his father before him. They and their descendants were (and still are) aristocrats in the strict sense of the word; but they were not members of the Bacon family. The two families were close, however, and Anthony and Francis Bacon were both raised and continued to walk in the circles of royal court and high government, whilst at the same time they lived in and had experience of lower strata of society and of foreign countries, courts and governments.

Stratfordian Evidence

It is commonly, although mistakenly, said by Stratfordians that there is a solid body of evidence to show that a real person named William Shakespeare wrote the poems and plays attributed to him; and that this very Shakespeare – who originated from Stratford-upon-Avon, purchased a house there, and married and lived there with his family (when he was not in London) – became an actor and share-holder in the company that produced the plays.

Non-Stratfordians will immediately agree on the validity of the last part of this statement: that there was an actor called William Shakespeare who originated from Stratford-upon-Avon, etc... It is the first two parts – the so-called solid body of evidence showing that a real person named William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him, and that this person was the Stratford actor – that is disputed.

The ‘solid body of evidence’ amounts primarily to the posthumous evidence of the 1623 First Shakespeare Folio of plays, entitled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, in which the actor William Shakespeare is identified as if he is the author. The ‘Address to the great Variety of Readers’, signed by Heminges and Condell, links him with these two remaining members of the King’s Men, who tell us that they undertook the labour ‘only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was our Shakespeare’. The following commendatory poem by Ben Jonson refers to the author Shakespeare as the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’, whilst a poem by Leonard Digges, which follows that of Ben Jonson, refers to Shake-speare’s ‘Stratford Moniment’. This Shakespeare Monument does indeed exist in a town called Stratford, which is indeed upon a river Avon, and the monument was erected, it is thought, a year or so earlier than 1623, on the north wall of the chancel of Holy Trinity Church and overlooking the gravestone of the actor Shakespeare, whose body was buried there in 1616.

In support of this ‘solid body of evidence’, Stratfordians point out that besides the plays in the First Folio of 1623, all of which are universally conceded to be by the same man (although some may be inaccurate in places and may even occasionally show the work of another hand), fifteen of these plays were published as separate works in one or more quarto editions during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with fourteen of them bearing Shakespeare’s name in one form or another on the title page. No one else’s name is associated with the quartos or folios, although Shakespeare’s name was used by some publishers on the title pages of other plays which are commonly accepted not to have been written by Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s name is also on the Shake-speare Sonnets (1609) and the poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and the Tragedy of Lucretia (1594), these latter poems being the first instance of the use of the Shakespeare name on a Shakespeare work.

Then, besides the appearance of his name on title pages, during his lifetime Shakespeare was referred to specifically by name as a well-known writer or poet at least twenty-three times. The references range from the ‘All praise worthy Lucretia Sweet Shakespeare’ acclamation in Polimanteia (1595) to Sir Thomas Freeman’s praise of the poet in a sonnet entitled ‘To Master William Shakespeare’ (1614). Of these, Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia (1598), mentions Shakespeare by name no less than nine times and as the author of twelve plays, two poems and some sonnets. Moreover, sometime after Shakespeare’s death Ben Jonson recorded (in papers found after the latter’s death in 1637 and printed in Discoveries in 1641) comments about Shakespeare  and his poetry, including specific references to the Shakespeare Folio and the play Julius Caesar, and acknowledged that Shakespeare was a friend whom he admired ‘this side idolatry’.

Certain official records also seem to support the notion that the actor Shakespeare was also the playwright, although there is doubt about their authenticity. In an appendix to the Account of the Office of Revels that lists the plays given at Court during 1605, “Shaxberd” is named as the poet who “mayd the plaies” Measure for Measure, [Comedy of] Errors and The Merchant of Venice, and also, by implication, Loves Labours Lost and Henry V. If “Shaxberd” is the “Willam Shakespeare” named elsewhere in the Account of Payments by the Treasurer of the Chamber (1595) as a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Company of actors, and if the appendix to the Revels account is genuine, then the latter is the first and only formal official contemporary reference to the actor Shakespeare as a playwright rather than an actor.

In addition to this ‘solid’ and ‘supporting’ evidence, various Stratfordians also argue that:

  • none of the plays or poems was attributed to anyone else but Shakespeare during his lifetime;
  • no document of the period has been found which connects any other person directly with the plays or poems;
  • no document of the period has been found which claims that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written by someone else;
  • there’s no evidence from contemporary sources that anyone doubted Shakespeare was the true author of the plays published in his name;
  • nobody thought Shakespeare’s identity was a mystery until 150-200 years after his death;
  • there is no evidence to suggest that the Shakespeare name, as used on the plays, sonnets and poems, was a pseudonym;
  • if we examine the lives of the other potential authors of the plays, we see that they were not associated with any of Shakespeare’s contemporary actors or productions of the plays;
  • Shakespeare was far from the low-bred semi-literate that some suggest;
  • Shakespeare was educated like a lot of other young people of his time and the plays do not demonstrate any great knowledge… They basically are the kind of knowledge open to any reasonably literate Elizabethan person.
  • Shakespeare’s school curriculum, plus the popular texts circulating at the time, amply cover his breadth of reading;
  • while Ben Jonson said ‘Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek’, this was an old rival’s sideswipe in the course of an eulogy proclaiming Shakespeare the greatest of his contemporaries.

All of these arguments are, in fact, not only flawed but, in over half of the cases, entirely wrong.

Contrary Evidence

If indeed evidence in Shakespeare’s life – that is the actor Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon – could be found to show that he wrote plays and poems, or even letters, or was of a literary bent, or walked in literary circles, with literary friends, or had a library or access to libraries sufficient to account for his vast literary knowledge, then there might indeed be no controversy about the authorship. But all these things are glaringly absent from Shakespeare’s life, despite the most painstaking research. This research has shown up many things about Shakespeare, such as he was an actor, a shareholder in an acting company and joint owner–manager of a theatre in London, a business man, a corn-dealer, a money-lender, a property-dealer and owner, with properties in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, with a family, whose home was in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born, grew up, retired to and died.

This is a mighty list of occupations, from which one might conclude that Shakespeare was a very busy, astute and successful man. However, there is absolutely nothing to indicate that he had the knowledge, talent, abilities, interest and experience to have written the Shakespeare works. There is not even any indication, let alone proof, that he could write more than just his signature – and even that is questionable.

So this actually is a problem, of which most clear-thinking Stratfordians are aware, because the Shakespeare Folio is the only hard evidence that links the actor William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon with the authorship of the Shakespeare plays, with the Shakespeare Monument at Stratford-upon-Avon appearing to confirm this. All other documentation referring to Shakespeare that is used to claim the actor as the author (i.e. the ‘supportive’ evidence) depends entirely on the Folio evidence; otherwise either the documents refer to the author Shakespeare (who may or may not be the actor) or to the actor Shakespeare as an actor in the company performing the Shakespeare plays. In fact, in three outstanding instances, the actor is identified in such a way as to either claim or strongly suggest that he was not or could not have been the author; whilst the evidence of both the Shakespeare Folio and Monument is enigmatic and therefore questionable, to say the least.

Then, contrary to what Stratfordians like to tell the public, three well-known poets and at least four other poets or writers, all contemporaries of Shakespeare, either declared or suggested that the actor Shakespeare was not the author Shakespeare. The three well-known poets are Robert Greene, one of the university wits of the 1580’s, Ben Jonson, the poet laureate who claimed the actor Shakespeare as a friend, and the poet-satirist George Wither. Stratfordians tend either to twist the meanings to suit their case or, in the case of Wither, ignore it totally.

Robert Greene’s criticism of the actor Shakespeare and declaration that he was not the author Shakespeare is to be found in the last of his pamphlets, published posthumously in 1592 under the title Greene’s Groats-worth of Witte, bought with a Million of Repentance. In the epistle addressed ‘To those Gentlemen his Quondam acquaintance that spend their wits in making plays’, Greene warns three of his fellow playwrights not to trust actors – those ‘puppets’, ‘burrs’ and ‘anticks garnished in our colours’ – and refers to a particular actor, identifiable as William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, as an ‘upstart Crow’ beautified with the ‘feathers’ of the playwrights, who not only believes that he is able to bombast out a blank verse as well as the best of the playwrights but also, being an ‘absolute Iohannes fac totum’, is conceited enough to imagine that he is the only ‘Shake-scene’ in a country.

‘Base-minded men all three of you, if by my miserie you be not warnd: for unto none of you (like mee) sought those burres to cleave: those Puppets (I meane) that spake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange, that I, to whom they all have beene beholding: is it not like that you, to whom they all have been beholding, shall (were yee in that case as I am now) bee both at once of them forsaken? Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger’s hart wrapped in a Player’s hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey. O that I might entreate your rare wits to be employed in more profitable courses: & let these Apes imitate your past excellence, and never more acquaint them with your admired inventions.’[5]

‘Iohannes fac totum’ was a term of abuse used mainly by the university wits and meaning ‘Jack-of-all-trades, master of none’. The crow is famous for mimicry but not for invention, and it croaks bombastically. In classical fables it is associated with stealing whatever it finds beautiful or attractive, even the finer plumes of other birds; thus in Renaissance symbolism the crow is associated with plagiarism, particularly literary plagiarism, with the plumes or feathers (relating to quill pens) referring to what the poets (‘other birds’) have written. In this instance the actor who is the ‘upstart crow’ is accused of beautifying himself with the ‘feathers’ of Greene and his fellow playwrights. The Shakespeare inference is made clear not only by mention of the ‘Shake-scene’ but also of one direct and one indirect reference to two Shakespeare plays, Romeo and Juliet and 3 Henry VI. The references are far from complementary to the actor.

O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face…
Dove-feather’d raven…
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st![6]

Oh tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide!
How could’st thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?[7]

Not only is Green accusing the actor of stealing their plays, which can only mean that he is stealing the credit for them by passing them off as his own, pretending to be what he is not, but also that he has a tiger’s heart (i.e. proud, lustful, duplicitous, deceitful, ferocious, ruthless) and in his own conceit thinks he is the only Shake-scene in the country. This clearly implies that there is another Shake-scene, and this in turn implies that there is another Shakespeare. Because Greene includes in this other Shake-scene himself and his fellow playwrights (the ‘gentlemen’ who, as Greene makes clear elsewhere, ‘spend their wits in making plays’), and the actor was stealing from them, the inference is that the true author Shakespeare was the leader or ‘chief’ of the group and assisted by the other playwrights in the group. It also suggests that the name ‘Shakespeare’, in the context of the plays, poems and literary Shake-scene, was a pseudonym, a matter which is confirmed by the alternative spelling of ‘Shakespeare’ as ‘Shake-speare’ printed on the Shake-speare Sonnets and many of the quarto editions of the plays. It also makes more sense of why many plays and poems published under the name of Shakespeare have been recognised as not being by the bard Shakespeare but by other poets using or being grouped by the publisher under the name of Shakespeare.

Ben Jonson is normally presented as being the principal witness for the actor Shakespeare being the author Shakespeare. However, what he says about Shakespeare is contradictory. When he writes about Shakespeare the author he is full of praise, as witness his striking tribute in the Shakespeare Folio; but when he writes about Shakespeare the actor it is entirely different. The only reasonable conclusion is that Jonson is referring to two different people, the actor and the author, and he seems to have known them both well.

For instance, in the only contemporary reference to the actor Shakespeare that could be called biographical, found among Jonson’s papers after his death in 1637 and printed in Discoveries in 1641, is the following comment:-

‘I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, Would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted. And to justifie mine owne candor, (for I lov’d the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any.) Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d: Sufflaminandus erat; as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his owne power; would the rule of it had beene so too. Many times hee fell into those things, could not escape laughter: As when hee said in the person of Caesar, one speaking to him; Caesar, thou dost me wrong. Hee replyed: Caesar did never wrong, but with just cause: and such like; which were ridiculous. But hee redeemed his vices, with his vertues. There was ever more in him to be praysed, then to be pardoned.’[8]

In this ‘biography’ Jonson begins by referring to Heminge and Condell’s letter, To the great Variety of Readers, in the 1623 Shakespeare Folio, which remarks that they ‘scarce received from him [Shakespeare] a blot in his papers’; but Jonson appears to mock this reputation that the players had given Shakespeare, saying that they commend their friend by that wherein he most faulted. Then, after describing Shakespeare as of an honest, open and free nature, Jonson compares his actor friend to the Roman orator Haterius, who had the unfortunate reputation of being often so impetuous and carried away with his words that he would muddle them, burst into tears, speak ex tempore and become so profuse in his language that he had to be stopped. The example that Jonson gives is taken from the Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar (III, i, 47-8), wherein Caesar actually says: ‘Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause will he be satisfied’. Jonson infers that Shakespeare acted the part of Caesar and got his words muddled up in a ridiculous way – a mistake that no author of such a play, with its major focus on good oratory, would have made.

George Wither is even more categoric about the actor Shakespeare not being the author Shakespeare. In 1645 he published (anonymously) a satirical poem entitled The Great Assizes holden in Parnassus by Apollo and his Assessours, in which Shakespeare is declared to have been a mimic who pretended to be a poet. Wither was in a special position to know this, for he belonged, like Ben Jonson, to the group of poets that included the author Shakespeare, who were patronised by the Earls of Southampton, Pembroke and Montgomery. It was to these lords that the Shakespeare works were dedicated.

The behaviour and role that the actor Shakespeare played is strongly suggested in two poems, Epigram 56 by Ben Jonson and the last of the three anonymous satirical comedies entitled The Return from Parnassus. Epigram 56 was one of a collection of Epigrams that were published in 1616 as part of the folio of Jonson’s works, and which are short, witty verses mainly about Jonson’s literary friends and various well-known people of the time. The Return from Parnassus comedies were acted during the Christmas revels of 1601-2 by the students of St John’s College, Cambridge. In the third Return from Parnassus there are several lines that appear to refer not only to actors in general but to Shakespeare in particular, since it is Shakespeare who is mentioned so prominently in the play and it is he who had just inherited his father’s heraldic arms and title of esquire when his father died in September 1601 – the actor having made this possible in the first place by purchasing New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon and applying for a coat-of-arms. Moreover, the reference to ‘Poor Poet Ape, that would be thought our chief’ in Jonson’s epigram echoes the plaintiff words of Greene’s Groats-worth of Witte.

But ist not strange this mimick apes should prize
Unhappy Schollers at a hireling rate.
Vile world, that lifts them up to hye degree,
And treades us downe in grovelling misery.
England affordes those glorious vagabonds,
That carried earst their fardels on their backes,
Coursers to ride on through the gazing streetes,
Sooping it in their glaring Satten sutes,
And Pages to attend their maisterships:
With mouthing words that better wits have framed,
They purchase lands, and now Esquires are named.[9]

Poor Poet Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit,
From Brokage is become so bold a thief
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays, now grown
To a little wealth, and credit on the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose ‘twas first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! as if half-eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.[10]

Jonson's epigram does not identify the actor Shakespeare as clearly as the lines from Return from Parnassus, but when taken in the context of the author Shakespeare being the most likely poet to be considered the chief of the poets, and Greene's reference to the 'Shake-scene' of gentlemen-poets that implies their chief was a poet known to them as 'Shakespeare', then it makes it most likely that Jonson is referring to the actor Shakespeare.

Not only have we here three or more poets stating or strongly implying that the actor Shakespeare was not the author Shakespeare, but pretended to be so, there are also other contemporary poets and writers who likewise implied that not all is as it seems concerning the Shakespeare authorship. Two of them not only knew this but gave the real author’s name away.

The author of the pamphlet Vertue’s Commonwealth (1603) appears to support Greene’s accusation by comparing ‘He that can but bombast out a blank verse’ with a ‘Chirrillus’ whose verses were ‘not worth the reading’, or to a ‘Battillus’ who arrogated to himself the credit for the labours of others. The pamphleteer does not name Shakespeare as such and so may have been referring to some other actor or even actors generally, but the description of the actor bombasting out a blank verse matches Greene's description of the 'Shake-scene' actor as well as that of Ben Jonson, who likens the actor Shakespeare to Haterius and couples it with a good description of bombastic behaviour, applying it to the actor Shakespeare.

John Davies of Hereford, in his Scourge of Folly (1610), is far more pointed and specifically refers to Shakespeare as ‘our English Terence’. Terence was a Roman slave, famous for being a mask for the writings of great men such as the Roman senators, Scipio the younger and Laelius.

John Marston and Joseph Hall, in an exchange of satires that continued for two years, gave the game away. All copies of their books were subsequently ordered to be burnt. In his first book of Satires (1597) Hall criticises a poet he calls ‘Labeo’ (the name of a famous Roman lawyer), who has written erotic poetry anonymously. In Pygmalion’s Image (1598) Marston refers to Labeo as the writer of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. In his second book of Satires (1598) Hall infers that Labeo has used another person’s name to hide his authorship and thus be immune to satire. In Certain Satires Bk 1 (1598) Marston identifies Labeo with the motto, Mediocra firma, and in context with the Shakespeare poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The motto was Francis Bacon’s heraldic motto, used only by himself and his brother, Anthony Bacon. As the analogy with Labeo fits Francis Bacon rather than Anthony, then the identification is absolutely clear – Francis Bacon, according to Hall and Marston, wrote Venus and Adonis and Lucrece under the pseudonym of ‘William Shakespeare’.

Questionable Evidence

There is actually an abundance of evidence that can be gathered which indicates or tends to indicate that Francis Bacon was the author Shakespeare and the chief of the poets. My book, The Shakespeare Enigma,[11] lays out much of this matter as clearly as I have found possible and in the form of a detective story or treasure hunt, which the whole Shakespeare enigma seems to deliberately be. But what of the so-called ‘solid’ evidence purporting to identify William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon as the author of the Shakespeare works?

The 1623 Shakespeare Folio virtually shouts out that not all is as it seems. It starts with a cryptic poem by ‘B.I.’, who is assumed to be Ben Jonson. It refers to the portrait of Shakespeare that appears on the next page, the title page, and uses various anomalies and words with dual meaning. It tell us, for instance, that the ‘Graver’ (i.e. engraver) ‘had a strife to out-do the life’. To ‘out-do’ is virtually meaningless in the sense of the artist trying to do better than life itself, for that is impossible, but in its other sense as ‘do-out’, meaning to do away with or get rid of the life, it is entirely meaningful. That is to say, the poet is telling us that the engraver strove hard to make the portrait of Shakespeare lifeless. Why? To do this is completely contrary to what an artist normally tried to do. In the pre-modernist periods an artist tried his or her best to create a portrait that was as alive as possible and near as life as possible. But not in this case, the poet tells us. If, then, we look at the portrait, this statement is seen to be absolutely true: the face indeed looks lifeless. In fact, it looks like a mask. Why? What is this telling us?

To make doubly-sure that we get the cryptic meaning, the poet goes on to say, ‘O, could he but have drawn his wit as well in brass as he hath hit his face’. ‘Hit’ might be taken to refer to hitting the brass plate with a hammer and sharp instrument, but in fact ‘hit’ is the old-fashioned past-participle of ‘to hide’. The poet is therefore actually saying, ‘O, could he but have drawn his wit as well in brass as he hath hid his face’.

Other statements in the poem are also either ridiculous or cryptic, such as telling us that the engraver has engraved the picture in brass. Brass is the worst metal to use for an engraving, as it is too hard. The usual material is copper, which is soft enough to be engraved and yet strong enough to be long-lasting and resistant to damage. Brass is and was used for casts of statues and architectural features such as columns, because of its hardness and durability. The most famous examples are the two great pillars cast in brass by Hiram Abiff for the entrance to King Solomon’s Temple. They were accounted a wonder of the world at the time. They were called Boaz and Iachin, and are referred to in Cabala, Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism by their initials, ‘B.I.’. These pillars stood at the entrance to Solomon’s Temple. They were the first major ‘landmarks’ to be encountered and had to be passed between in order to enter the temple. The next feature to be passed was the veil, which masked or hid the interior and its ‘secrets’ from immediate view.

Solomon's Temple is known as a temple of light or wisdom. Likewise, the Shakespeare Folio can be understood as a ‘temple’ of light or wisdom, which has its entrance pillars, ‘B’ and ‘I’, and also its veil, the latter being the lifeless, mask-like face of Shakespeare depicted on the title page. That is to say, as in Solomon's Temple, having passed the pillars one next encounters the veil that masks the secrets of the interior, including that of the author, from view.

The compilers of the Shakespeare Folio clearly want us to grasp the message of its title page portrait, as it carefully and almost blatantly shows us more. For instance, the portrait depicts Shakespeare’s doublet with two left shoulders, one as seen from the front (Shakespeare’s left-hand side) and one as seen from the back (Shakespeare’s right-hand side). Why?

In Shakespeare’s time ‘left-handedness’ was used to represent something cryptic or concealed. This is a tradition that goes back a long time and can be traced to the Jewish Cabalistic tradition. During the time of Ficino, in 15th century Italy when the European Renaissance was truly born, the Jewish Cabala was perceived to underlie the Christian teachings. It was taught thereafter during the Renaissance as Christian Cabala and was part of the whole philosophical undercurrent of the Renaissance referred to loosely as the Platonic-Hermetic-Christian-Cabalistic tradition. This tradition entered and blossomed in England as the Rosicrucian movement at the time of Shakespeare.

The Rosicrucians or ‘Society of the Brothers of the Golden Rose-Cross’ were, according to the Rosicrucian apologist and contemporary, Michael Maier, founded in 1570. They were referred to (or referred to themselves) as the ‘invisible brethren’. To see them one had to develop the ‘eye of the eagle’. They lived openly amongst mankind, being an integral part of human society, yet (as Rosicrucians) remained invisible. This follows Cabalistic tradition, which states that part of the truth should be revealed and part kept hidden. An analysis of the Shakespeare works indicates strongly that ‘Shakespeare’ was not only part of the Rosicrucian movement and work but a central or leading part.

When we look carefully at the Shakespeare Monument at Stratford-upon-Avon, we can likewise discover some strange features and anomalies that immediately call into question any hasty assumptions as to who was the author Shakespeare. First of all, the inscription is disposed in three parts: two lines of Latin at the top, followed by six lines in English and two short lines in abbreviated Latin at the bottom. The second part of the inscription is quite extraordinary for a memorial. It comprises a command, a question and a challenge. The command is to ‘Stay’ (i.e. to wait or pause), the question is ‘why goest thou by so fast?’ and the challenge is to ‘Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath plast within this monument Shakspeare’ (i.e. ‘Read if thou canst, whom envious death hath placed within this Shakespeare monument’).

This command-question-challenge is a neat reminder of Portia’s similar interjection during the trial of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Just at the moment when Shylock is about to plunge his knife into the chest of Antonio, she cries, ‘Tarry a little, there is something else’. This proves to be rather important! That something else is so vital that it dramatically changes the whole perspective and situation. So, concerning the Shakespeare Monument, what is the ‘passenger’ (i.e. traveller or visitor) likely to miss if he or she rushes by too fast?

There are in fact several important things that have been unwittingly and sometimes glaringly missed by orthodox scholars as well as by the ordinary ‘passenger’ or traveller. For instance, the description of the author Shakespeare as given in the first line of the inscription does not match what we know about the actor Shakespeare, yet the last two lines in abbreviated Latin certainly refer to the Stratford-upon-Avon actor, as they give his date of death. So, are there perhaps two Shakespeares being commemorated – the actor and the author? The actor who, from a historical study of his life, is not actually known to have written anything, and the author who was, according to the Monument’s first-line inscription, ‘A Pylus [Nestor] in judgement, a Socrates in genius, a Maro [Virgil] in art’ – i.e. a ruler, judge and statesman, a philosopher, and a scholar-poet.

These are extraordinary comparisons to make, unless there is some deeper meaning to them. None of these great men were known publicly to have written plays, and the only one of them who was a poet (Virgil) was also a fine scholar. So why, out of all the great exemplars of classical tradition, were these three chosen? Do the Shakespeare plays reveal the judgement of a great ruler, judge and statesman? Do they show the genius of a great philosopher? Do they show the art of a great scholar-poet? The answer is certainly yes; but, from all that is known of the life of the actor, he is not the one who fits this description of the author.

In fact, there was only one man living at that time who fitted this description, who could have written the plays, who had a motive for writing the plays, who was alive throughout the whole Shakespeare period, and whose life and philosophy is reflected in the plays. That man is Francis Bacon.

Is there a further indication that the actor Shakespeare was not the author Shakespeare but only a mask for the real author? The answer is certainly ‘Yes’, for Socrates is reputed to have written at least some of the tragedies attributed to his pupil Euripides; and, according to the poet Edmund Spenser, Virgil wrote plays under the pseudonym of Tityrus.

As can be discovered in historical documents, Francis Bacon was known to his friends not only as a philosopher, lawyer and (later in his life) a supreme judge and statesman who, for a few months in 1617, was regent of England whilst the king was visiting Scotland, but also as a secret poet who wrote plays for the stage. Moreover, he was considered to be the greatest of all the poets – their Apollo, Athena and leader – who renovated philosophy using comedy and tragedy. Yet, despite this formidable acclaim by his contemporaries, none of his plays (which must have been considerable and brilliant if they renovated philosophy) ever appeared under his own name. He led a literary studio of scholars, writers and poets that included Ben Jonson, George Wither and John Davies of Hereford, was deeply connected with the Essex-Pembroke circle, wrote in different styles for different purposes, had at one time considered using a pseudonym for his philosophical works, and was referred to as both ‘Solomon’ and ‘Apollo’, symbolic titles associated with the Grand Master of Freemasonry and President of the Rosicrucians respectively. Ben Jonson both admired and reverenced him as ‘one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages’,[12] and referred to Bacon as a poet in the same terminology he used for ‘The Author’ Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Folio[13]: that is, as the one who had ‘filled up all numbers [i.e. arts, sciences, poetry and drama] and performed that in our tongue, which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece, or haughty Rome’.[14]

In the light of all this, when one considers that Francis Bacon was referred to as ‘Solomon’, even by King James himself, and as Apollo and Athena, the ‘Spear-shakers’, and that Bacon claimed he was building a temple (of light) in the human understanding, then the cryptic introduction to the Shakespeare Folio, prefaced by the symbols for the Great Pillars (‘B.I.’) of Solomon's Temple, makes complete sense.

I am not raising a capitol or pyramid to the pride of man, but laying a foundation in the human understanding for a holy temple after the model of the world. That model therefore I follow. For whatever deserves to exist deserves also to be known, for knowledge is the image of existence; and things mean and splendid exist alike.[15]


© Peter Dawkins, 2005, 2006, 2010


1. Francis Bacon, Plan of the Work, The Great Instauration: Spedding, IV, 31: transl. of Instauratio Magna, included in Novum Organum (1620):-

‘Of these the first is to set forth examples of inquiry and invention according to my method, exhibited by anticipation in some particular subjects; choosing such subjects as are at once the most noble in themselves among those under enquiry, and most different one from another; that there may be an example in every kind. I do not speak of those examples which are joined to the several precepts and rules by way of illustration (for of these I have given plenty in the second part of the work); but I mean actual types and models, by which the entire process of the mind and the whole fabric and order of invention from the beginning to the end, in certain subjects, and those various and remarkable, should be set as it were before the eyes. For I remember that in the mathematics it is easy to follow the demonstration when you have a machine beside you; whereas without that help all appears involved and more subtle than it really is. To examples of this kind,— being in fact nothing more than an application of the second part in detail and at large,— the fourth part of the work is devoted.’

2. Francis Bacon, Thoughts on the Nature of Things. (Spedding, V, 426: transl. of Cogitationes de Natura Rerum, iv.)

3. Francis Bacon, The New Method (1620), I, Aph. cxxvii. (Spedding, IV, 112: transl. of Novum Organum, 1620.)

4. See Peter Dawkins, Dedication to the Light (FBRT, 1984).

5. Robert Greene, A Groats-worth of Wit (1592).

6. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, III, ii, 73-78.

7. Shakespeare, 3 Henry VI,  I, iv, 137-140.

8. Ben Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter (1641), printed in Ben Jonson, Workes, pp 97-8.

9. The Returne from Pernassus or The Scourge of Simony, Pt 2, V, i. Published in 1616 (London) by John Wright, printed by G. Eld.

10. Ben Jonson, ‘On Poet-Ape,’ Epigrams (1616), No 56.

11. Peter Dawkins, The Shakespeare Enigma (London: Polair Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-9545389-4-3.)

12. Ben Jonson, Discoveries (1641):-

‘I have and do reverence him, for the greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men, and most worthy of admiration, that had been in many ages.’

13. Ben Jonson, Eulogy, Shakespeare Folio (1623):-

............ Or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone, for the comparison
Of all, that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Ben Jonson, Discoveries (1641):-

14. Ben Jonson, Discoveries (1641):-

‘...he [Bacon] who hath filled up all numbers, and performed that in our tongue, which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece, or haughty Rome.

15. Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Bk I, Aph.120 (transl. Spedding & Ellis).

The Francis Bacon Research Trust