genealogy, family, history, family history
Looking For Shakespeare
The origins of
the authorship question.
During the past two centuries doubts about the
identity of the author of the works attributed to William
Shakespeare have brought a small cottage industry into being. To
date more than 4,000 books have been written on the authorship
question. Passions and interest have always run high.
The roots of the enterprise can be traced to
the 1780s, when the Reverend James Wilmot moved to Warwickshire,
where Shakespeare had lived, to gather information for a biography.
After covering himself, in the words of one scholar, "with the dust
of every private bookcase within a radius of 50 miles" of Stratford
and finding no books that had been owned by the playwright or other
physical evidence, Wilmot burned his notes for fear of their
implications. Eventually Wilmot revealed to a visitor his belief
that the works of Shakespeare had been written by "some other
person," perhaps Sir Francis Bacon. Because the secondhand account
of Wilmot's conclusions did not surface until 1932, the credit for
the opening public salvo in the debate is given to Delia Bacon (no
relation to Francis) and William H. Smith, who each published a book
in 1857 suggesting that William Shakespeare of Stratford could not
have been the author of the works of "Shakespeare." Both writers
implicated Francis Bacon.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote the
introduction to Delia Bacon's book, in 1863 also wrote an Atlantic
article in which he praised her conviction, if not her conclusion.
Bacon's scholarship had a profound effect on Mark Twain, who said
his disbelief in Shakespeare as the true Bard "was born of Delia
Bacon's book." But neither Twain nor any of the other prominent
figures who have expressed "anti-Stratfordian" beliefs--Henry James,
Walt Whitman, and Sigmund Freud, among others--has exempted the
doubters from academic scorn (in many cases well deserved). The
Shakespeare scholar Alfred Harbage characterized them in in 1956 as
"eccentrics of the most familiar type--pathetic victims of the idee
fixe, or wealthy old gentlemen safely indulging a latent hunger to
be 'radical' about something."