© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.
The following is a brief summary of a thesis I wrote on the Shakespeare authorship question.
Anti-Stratfordianism, the movement which not only disputes the claim that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays and poems attributed to him, but also usually holds that they were written by a nobleman, such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, has had not only a long history but a very vocal one, dating as far back as the end of the 18th century. Although most of the world of "orthodox" scholarship has regarded it with a good deal of scorn and although many of its members have been justly considered eccentric (if not lunatic), the movement has caused such well-known men as Walt Whitman, Otto von Bismarck, Sigmund Freud, and Mark Twain to deny that the historical Shakespeare had anything to do with the works going under his name. Further, anti-Stratfordianism gained a great deal of support during the latter half of the 19th century, causing many to believe its assertions that Shakespeare was an illiterate oaf who merely served as a front man for an aristocrat.
What caused anti-Stratfordianism to sway so many minds? There seem to be three main reasons: firstly, the halfhearted attempts of writers for a hundred years after Shakespeare's death to gather information about him, and the willingness of many long after that to believe inauthentic and unreliable gossip about him; secondly, the growing tendency of writers, especially Romantics such as Coleridge, to idolize and almost deify Shakespeare, with the result that the gap between the humble Stratford man and the divine genius of the plays became too wide for many to accept; and, thirdly, the pseudo-scientific "findings" of many anti-Stratfordians when the movement got underway, which were hard for laymen to dispute, causing them to doubt tradition. Since my research included some discussion of the first and third of these causes, I will summarize the course of events in both of these.
Information about Shakespeare's life was never in much demand in his own day. The only indisputable link between the Stratford man and his works--one which anti-Stratfordians have to discredit in making their cases--is the First Folio of 1623, the first collected edition of his plays. Here the prefatory matter explicitly associates Shakespeare of Stratford with the author of the works. But there is little beyond association there.
Other information may be found in a few surviving contemporary documents such as the playwright's will and deeds connected with the theaters in which he had a share. Some scattered references to him may be found in writings of the later 17th century, but these are often of doubtful veracity. It seems evident to traditionalists that researching Shakespeare's life was simply not important to his century; when his first biography was finally written, by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, it was a perfunctory effort intended merely to preface the first truly-edited text of his plays. Rowe filled much of his "Life of Shakespeare" with commentary on the works; the rest was composed of hearsay gathered by the actor Thomas Betterton, of which Edmond Malone late in the century claimed that, of eleven biographical statements in Rowe's "Life," eight are demonstrably false. By the time people were finally motivated to research Shakespeare's life, many facts had passed into oblivion; this left the field open for forgery and idle speculation to construct a spurious "ideal."
The anti-Stratfordian movement was publicly triggered by the claim of Delia Bacon in the 1850's that Francis Bacon was the real author of Shakespeare's works, but writers who alleged that there were secret messages to be deciphered in the plays caused much doubt in the literate public. For example, Ignatius Donnelly, a former U.S. senator, discovered that "Shakspere" was a "dummy" behind which Bacon operated; when his foe Robert Cecil tried to inform the Queen of the truth, Bacon attempted suicide, Shakspere tried to flee the country, and other melodramatic intrigues occurred. Dr. Orville Ward Owen, on the other hand, found that Bacon was Queen Elizabeth's illegitimate son and that Cecil strangled the Queen. So difficult was it to argue with or even trace these "cipher stories" that it was not until the 1950's that these works were conclusively disproven.
But it is not true that all anti-Stratfordianism is as ridiculous as this. In fact, Charlton Ogburn's argument that Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare's plays, has been accorded serious attention even outside the world of Shakespearean scholarship--for example, on William F. Buckley's Firing Line. Ogburn's work, however, as deserving of notice as it is, is not finally convincing; despite many gaps in the evidence and in traditional thought, his argument relies too much on selective juggling of evidence, as I detailed in my paper. Also, his suggestion of conspiracy in the preparation of the First Folio is easily demolished by reference to contemporary practice.
It does not follow that anti-Stratfordianism should automatically be ridiculed, as Ogburn's work shows; but if there is little evidence on the Stratford man, there is not so little than we can write him off as a non-entity. It seems more convincing, all in all, to believe that the facts on the dramatist have simply disappeared naturally than to hold that they were deliberately suppressed because they pointed to an aristocratic "Shakespeare."