“Bohemians at the Grave of Shakespeare”

October 3, 1874

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“Bohemians at the Grave of Shakespeare”

Arts and Entertainment; Journalists/Journalism; Shakespeare Controversy;

Bennett, James Gordon, Jr.;

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The contrast between the extraordinary quality of William Shakespeare's plays and his rather ordinary background and life (for which much information is lacking) gave rise to the controversial question, which continues to this day, of whether someone else actually authored the works for which he is credited.  How could the ill-educated son of a small-town glover write such profound and beautiful literature?  The likely candidates offered are more refined, cosmopolitan, and educated than Shakespeare, such as Sir Francis Bacon, the central figure of the theory addressed in the featured cartoon and accompanying article. 

The suggestion that Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the English philosopher, essayist, and statesman, wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare (1564-1616), was advanced as early as 1785 by a Reverend James Wilmot.  However, it was Delia Bacon (no relation to Sir Francis), a New England schoolteacher and failed novelist, who placed the Bacon thesis firmly in the public consciousness in the late-1850s.  Her first essay on the subject appeared in the January 1856 issue of Putnam's Magazine, and her book, The Philosophy of Shakspeare's Plays Unfolded, was published the next year.  

Delia Bacon claimed that a comparison of the writings of Sir Francis Bacon with the supposed Shakespearean opus demonstrated that the English essayist, not the backwoods bard, was the true author of most, if not all, of the plays.  Furthermore, she alleged that the plays were sponsored by a secret society within the royal English court and were intended as republican (anti-monarchical) propaganda.  In order to gain evidence for her thesis, Delia Bacon visited England, where she unsuccessfully attempted to have Shakespeare's grave opened, in hopes of finding documentation buried there.  Her dismissal of Shakespeare as a "vulgar, illiterate deer poacher," is reflected in the illustration of "Shakespeare Before The Justices, Charged With Poaching," which appears above the aforementioned Harper's Weekly article .  

Following Delia Bacon's lead, others perused Shakespearean texts for anagrams and coded messages that would reveal the plays' genuine origins and meanings.  It was proposed, for example, that the Latin word "honorificabilitudinitatibus" in Love's Labor's Lost was an anagram of a Latin phrase translated as "These plays, the offspring of F. Bacon, are preserved for the world."  The authorship controversy became so well known that in the late 1880s Hostetter's Stomach Bitters advertised under the caption "Which Was It?  Bacon Or Shakspeare?" in order to grab the attention of newspaper readers.  In the twentieth century, however, professional cryptographers criticized these conjectures, and supporters of the Bacon authorship theory waned.

In the featured cartoon, the figure in the left-foreground is probably James Gordon Bennett Jr., editor of the New York Herald, who bends over to decipher the epitaph on Shakespeare's gravestone, expecting a secret code to reveal who really is buried there.  Behind him stands former New York mayor A. Oakey Hall, a prolific (though bad) playwright himself, who is ready to dig up the remains, in mimicry of Delia Bacon's earlier endeavor.  In the background, the second figure from the left may be writer Mark Twain, who was convinced that Shakespeare was not the actual author, although the American was not sure that Bacon was, either.  (Another possibility is New York Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid.)  He and other scoffers appear as impish Pucks pulling down the bust of Shakespeare from atop his gravestone.

Over the years, theories have been put forth offering a number of people as the possible author of the Shakespearean corpus, including William Stanley, the earl of Derby and a patron of the stage, playwright Christopher Marlowe, and even Queen Elizabeth I.  The case for Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford, seems to be particularly compelling to laymen, but has been rejected by most professional Shakespearean scholars.  In fact, the best and overwhelming evidence indicates that the author of the Shakespearean works is none other than William Shakespeare.  

Shakespeare is identified in documentation as the author of the works by his contemporaries, including playwright Ben Jonson, actors, and theater owners, and over 45 others--far too many to keep any alleged authorship conspiracy secret.  Furthermore, the often stated claim that the plays could only have been written by someone intimate with real court life, such as Sir Francis Bacon or the earl of Oxford, was never made by anyone in Shakespeare's time or for centuries afterward, nor is the contention supported by modern historians.  As for being an ill-educated rube, Shakespeare's circle of friends were quite sophisticated, and critics of his authorship have exaggerated the playwright's knowledge of the classics, law, and other subjects, while downplaying the resources available to any intelligent Elizabethan subject.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Bohemians at the Grave of Shakespeare”
May 21, 2024

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