Favorite Alternate Shakespeare Candidates

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

William Shakespeare--or is it? (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

All the satellites of Uranus are named after Shakespearean characters.

Since the 1700s, people have been voicing doubts about whether or not William Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him. Now it's all the rage. To question the Bard is tres chic among actors, authors, and, well, just about anybody with a pet theory to hock. Speculation has never been more rampant—or more fun!

The list of suspicious luminaries includes Mark Twain, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Sir John Gielgud, Walt Whitman, Derek Jacobi, and Keanu Reeves. Heck, even Mark Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, has joined the doubters (which is something like Billy Graham delivering the keynote address at an atheist convention). There's no shortage of conspiracy theories, but here are some of the favorites:

William Shakespeare: With so many other potential authorship candidates out there, it's almost becoming fashionable again to suggest that Shakespeare himself wrote the plays credited to his name. After all, despite the lack of evidence that detractors love to claim, there's actually less hard evidence to tie anyone else to them. It's just crazy enough to believe.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: Oxford has definitely gotten the best press over the years, and he certainly has his share of celebrity supporters. He is touted especially because he wrote poetry and is acknowledged as a playwright without having any titles specifically attributed to him. Supporters usually trot out coincidences between the earl's life and Hamlet as primary evidence, along with a series of passages from a family Bible and Oxford's coat of arms that features a lion "shaking a spear."

Sir Francis Bacon: Bacon has been a favorite for a number of years, now, although he seems to be slipping in popularity to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford over the last thirty years. Bacon's supporters point out his advanced learning and love of ciphers. Many try to support their claims, in fact, with several ciphers "discovered" in the plays that encode clues to Bacon's authorship.

Christopher Marlowe: Christopher Marlowe was also an Elizabethan playwright, a predecessor to Shakespeare whose biggest claim to fame was Doctor Faustus. According to sources, he was also occasionally an agent for Her Majesty's government. He died in a tavern brawl in 1593, well before Shakespeare's greatest works were written. Conspiracy theorists have him faking his death and writing the plays from Italy under a pseudonym.

William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby: Derby is a dark-horse candidate who either wrote the plays on his own, or was the ringleader of a group effort that included many of the other alternate candidates. The seminal work is from 1919, in which French scholar Abel LeFranc hypothesized that whoever wrote the works had intimate knowledge of France and its royal court. Later proponents have explored the mysterious coincidence between the initials of William Stanley and William Shakespeare.

Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland: Rutland may have been a gentleman and well-traveled scholar, but he would have been a bit young to have written at least half of Shakespeare's plays. In 1595, he was only 18 and still attending Cambridge. The two primary connections seem to be through Hamlet. Rutland was a royal ambassador to Denmark, and attended university in Padua with (among others) two students eerily named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Sir Walter Raleigh: Advanced by author Henry Pemberton, Jr. in the early 1900s, Raleigh is held as an example of an educated well-traveled courtier known to turn a verse or two in his day (not unlike Oxford). The evidence, as with others, draws on parallels between Raleigh's life and references within the works. Pemberton's main argument is that Claudius of Hamlet represents King James I, and Raleigh uses the character of Hamlet to vent his rage at the monarch.

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: Mary has a few things going for her in the eyes of her supporters. She was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, she was one of the most educated women in England, and she was the sister of poet Sir Philip Sydney. Proponents point to Mary's younger lover (and, potentially, her dark-haired niece) as inspiration for the sonnets. Also, the First Folio of 1623 is dedicated to her sons, and Jonson's eulogy within refers to the "sweet swan of Avon"—the countess, whose personal symbol was a swan, maintained an estate on the river Avon.


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