The mainstream view is that William Shakespeare of Stratford, an actor in the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men), wrote the poems and plays that bear his name. The Baconians, however, hold that scholars are so focused on the details of Shakespeare's life that they neglect to investigate the many facts that they see as connecting Bacon to the Shakespearean work. "It is perfectly true," declared Harry Stratford Caldecott in an 1895 Johannesburg lecture, "that the great bulk of English critical opinion refuses to recognise or admit the fact that there is any question or controversy about the matter. If it did so, it would find itself face to face with a problem which it would be absolutely unable to determine in harmony with preconceived ideas. Consequently, it endeavours to ignore or waive aside any suggestion of a doubt as to the authorship of these immortal works, as if it were an ugly spectre or troublesome nightmare. It is, notwithstanding, a perfectly tangible, flesh-and-blood difficulty and must sooner or later be faced and grappled with in a manly and straightforward way. The Baconians' first objective is to establish reasonable doubt in the Stratford man's authorship claim and then, having justified the need to examine an alternative candidate, cite the many possible connections between Sir Francis Bacon and the Shakespearean work. (See Shakespearean authorship.)
The main Baconian evidence is founded on the presentation of a motive for concealment, the circumstances surrounding the first known performance of The Comedy of Errors, the close proximity of Bacon to the William Strachey letter upon which many scholars think The Tempest was based, perceived allusions in the plays to Bacon's legal acquaintances, the many supposed parallels with the plays of Bacon's published work and entries in the Promus (his private wastebook), Bacon's interest in civil histories, and ostensible autobiographical allusions in the plays. Since Bacon had first-hand knowledge of government cipher methods, most Baconians see it as feasible that he left his signature somewhere in the Shakespearean work.
As in the cases of every other candidate, the Stratford man is claimed to have acted as a mask for the concealed author. Supporters of the standard view, often referred to as "Stratfordian" or "Mainstream", dispute all contentions in favour of Bacon, and criticize Bacon's poetry as not being comparable in quality with that of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare of Stratford is further identified by the following evidence: He left gifts to actors from the London company in his will; the man from Stratford and the author of the works share a common name; and commendatory poems in the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare's works refer to the "Swan of Avon" and his "Stratford monument". Mainstream scholars believe that the latter phrase refers to the funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, which refers to Shakespeare as a writer (comparing him to Virgil and calling his writing a "living art"), and was described as such by visitors to Stratford as far back as the 1630s.
Several pieces of circumstantial evidence support the Stratfordian view: In a 1592 pamphlet by the playwright Robert Greene called "Greene's Groatsworth of Wit", Greene chastises a playwright whom he calls "Shake-scene", calling him "an upstart crow" and a "Johannes factotum" (a "Jack-of-all-trades", a man able to feign skill), thus suggesting that people were aware of a writer named Shakespeare. Also, poet John Davies once referred to Shakespeare as "our English Terence". Additionally, Shakespeare's grave monument in Stratford, built within a decade of his death, currently features him with a pen in hand, suggesting that he was known as a writer.
Critics of the mainstream view have challenged most if not all of the above assertions, claiming that there is no direct evidence which clearly identifies Shakespeare of Stratford as a playwright. These critics note that the only theatrical reference in his will (the gifts to fellow actors) were interlined - i.e.: inserted between previously written lines - and thus subject to doubt; the term "Swan of Avon" can be interpreted in numerous ways; that "Greene's Groatsworth of Wit" could imply that Shakespeare was being given credit for the work of other writers; that Davies' mention of "our English Terence" is a mixed reference as Cicero, Quintilian, Michel de Montaigne and many contemporary Elizabethan scholars knew Terence as a front man for one or more Roman aristocratic playwrights.; and they assert that Shakespeare's grave monument was altered after its original creation, with the original monument merely showing a man holding a grain sack.
Those who subscribe to the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the Shakespeare work generally refer to themselves as "Baconians", while dubbing those who maintain the orthodox view that William Shakspeare of Stratford wrote them "Stratfordians".
Baptised as William Shakspere, the Stratford man used several variants of his name during his lifetime, including "Shakespeare". Baconians use "Shakspere or "Shakespeare" for the glover's son and actor from Stratford, and "Shake-speare" for the author to avoid the assumption that the Stratford man wrote the work.
In a letter to the barrister and poet John Davies in 1603, Bacon refers to himself as a "concealed poet". Baconians claim that certain of his contemporaries knew of and hinted at this secret authorship. The satirical poets Joseph Hall (1574-1656) and John Marston (1575-1634) in the so-called Hall-Marston satires, discuss between them a character called Labeo in relation to Shakespeare's long poem "Venus and Adonis" (1593). Perceiving that Hall is criticising "Venus and Adonis" as a lewd Mirror-genre poem, Marston writes "What, not mediocria firma from thy spight?", "mediocria firma" being the Bacon family motto. In 1781, a Warwickshire clergyman and scholar named James Wilmot, having failed to find significant evidence from his research in the Stratford district relating to Shakspere's authorship, suspected that Shakspere could not be the author of the works that bear his name. Wilmot was familiar with the writings of Francis Bacon and formed the opinion that he was more likely the real author of the Shakespearean canon. Persuaded of Bacon's authorship of the Shakespeare poems and plays, he related his view to James Cowell, who revealed it in a paper read to the Ipswich Philosophical Society in 1805.
The idea that Sir Francis Bacon penned the Shakespeare work was revived by William Henry Smith in a letter to Lord Ellesmere in 1856. This took the form of a sixteen-page pamphlet entitled Was Lord Bacon the Author of Shakespeare's Plays? in which Smith noted several letters to and from Francis Bacon that apparently hinted at his authorship. A year later, both Smith and Delia Bacon published books expounding the Baconian theory. In the latter work, Shakespeare was represented as a group of writers, including Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser, whose agenda was to propagate an anti-monarchial system of philosophy by secreting it in the text.
In 1867, in the library of Northumberland House, one John Bruce happened upon a bundle of bound documents, some of whose sheets had been ripped away. It had comprised numerous of Bacon's oratories and disquisitions, and also, once, the manuscripts of Richard II and Richard III, but these had been removed. On the outer sheet was scrawled repeatedly the names of Bacon and Shakespeare. There were several quotations from the latter's poems and one, too, from Love's Labour's Lost. The Earl of Northumberland sent the bundle to James Spedding, who subsequently penned a thesis on the subject, with which was published a facsimile of the aforementioned cover. Spedding hazarded a 1592 date, making it possibly the earliest extant mention of the Swan of Avon. The Northumberland manuscript, while not proving that Bacon wrote the plays, shows us that Bacon was in possession of their manuscripts. It is not known how he came to own them and why they were destroyed.
After a diligent deciphering of the Elizabethan handwriting in Francis Bacon's wastebook, the Promus of Formularies and Elegancies, Constance Mary Fearon Pott (1833-1915) noted that many of the ideas and figures of speech in Bacon's book could also be found in the Shakespearean plays. Pott founded the Francis Bacon Society in 1885 and published her Bacon-centered theory in 1891. In this, Pott developed the view of W.F.C. Wigston, that Francis Bacon was the founding member of the Rosicrucians, a secret society of occult philosophers, and claimed that they secretly created art, literature and drama, including the entire Shakespeare canon, before adding the symbols of the rose and cross to their work.
The late 19th-century interest in the Baconian theory continued the theme that Bacon had secreted encoded messages in the plays. In 1888, Ignatius L. Donnelly, a U.S. Congressman, science fiction author and Atlantis theorist, set out his notion of ciphers in The Great Cryptogram, while Elizabeth Wells Gallup, having read Bacon's account of his 'bi-literal cipher' (in which two fonts were used as a method of encoding in binary format), claimed to have found evidence that Bacon not only authored the Shakespearean works but, along with the Earl of Essex, he was a child of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester, who had been secretly married. No-one else was able to discern these hidden messages, and the cryptographers William and Elizabeth Friedman showed that the method is unlikely to have been employed.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) expressed interest in and gave credence to the Baconian theory in his writings. The German mathematician Georg Cantor believed that Shakespeare was Bacon, but he was apparently suffering a bout of illness when he researched the subject in 1884. He eventually published two pamphlets supporting the theory in 1896 and 1897.
The American physician Dr Orville Ward Owen (1854-1924) had such conviction in his own cipher method that, in 1909, he began excavating the bed of the River Wye, near Chepstow Castle, in the search of Bacon's original Shakespearean manuscripts. Only his death in 1924 prevented him from persisting with the project.
The American art collector Walter Conrad Arensberg (1878-1954) believed that Bacon had concealed messages in a variety of ciphers, relating to a secret history of the time and the esoteric secrets of the Rosicrucians, in the Shakespearean works. He published a variety of decipherments between 1922 and 1930, concluding finally that, although he had failed to find them, there certainly were concealed messages. He established the Francis Bacon Foundation in California in 1937 and left it his collection of Baconiana.
More recent Baconian theory ignores the esoteric following that the theory had earlier attracted. Whereas, previously, the main proposed reason for secrecy was Bacon's desire for high office, this theory posits that his main motivation for concealment was the completion of his Great Instauration project. The argument runs that, in order to advance the project's scientific component, he intended to set up new institutes of experimentation to gather the data (his scientific "Histories") to which his inductive method could be applied. He needed to attain high office, however, to gain the requisite influence, and being known as a dramatist (a low-class profession) would have impeded his prospects. Realising that play-acting was used by the ancients "as a means of educating men's minds to virtue", and being "strongly addicted to the theatre himself, he is claimed to have set out the otherwise-unpublished moral philosophical component of his Great Instauration project in the Shakespearean work (moral "Histories"). In this way, he could influence the nobility through dramatic performance with his observations on what constitutes "good" government (as in Prince Hal's relationship with the Chief Justice in Henry IV, Part 2).
Henry VIII (1613) may be interpreted as alluding to Bacon's fall from office in 1621, suggesting that the play had been altered at least five years after Shakspere's death in 1616. The argument relates to Cardinal Wolsey's forfeiture of the Great Seal in the play, which might be construed as departing from the facts of history to mirror Bacon's own loss. Bacon lost office on a charge of accepting bribes to influence his judgment of legal cases, whereas Wolsey's crime was to petition the Pope to delay sanctioning King Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Nevertheless, in 3.2.125-8, just before the Great Seal is reclaimed, King Henry's main concern is an inventory of Wolsey's wealth that has inadvertently been delivered to him:
A few lines later, Wolsey loses the Seal with the stage direction:
However, in history, only the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk performed this task, and Shakespeare has inexplicably added the Earl of Surrey and the Lord Chamberlaine. In Bacon's case, King James "commissioned the Lord Treasurer, the Lord Steward, the Lord Chamberlaine, and the Earl of Arundel, to receive and take charge of it". Given that Thomas Howard was the 2nd Earl of Arundel and Surrey, then the two noblemen that Shakespeare has added may be construed as references to two of the four that attended Bacon.
There is indeed much evidence to suggest that Bacon had the credentials to write the Shakespearean work. In relation to the Stratford man's extensive vocabulary, we have the words of Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary: "[... A] Dictionary of the English language might be compiled from Bacon's writing alone". The poet Percy Bysshe Shelly testifies against the notion that Bacon's was an unwaveringly dry legal style: "Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his intellect satisfies the intellect [...]. Ben Jonson writes in his First-Folio tribute to "The Author Mr William Shakespeare",
"There can be no doubt," said Caldecott, "that Ben Jonson was in possession of the secret composition of Shakespeare's works." An intimate of both Bacon and Shakespeare — he was for a time the former's stenographer and Latin interpreter, and had his debut as a playwright produced by the latter — he was placed perfectly to be in the know. He did not name Shakespeare among the sixteen greatest cards of the epoch but wrote of Bacon that he "hath filled up all the numbers, and performed that in our tongue which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece or to haughty Rome [...] so that he may be named, and stand as the mark and acme of our language. "If Ben Jonson knew that the name 'Shakespeare' was a mere cloak for Bacon, it is easy enough to reconcile the application of the same language indifferently to one and the other. Otherwise," declared Caldecott, "it is not easily explicable.
Some time subsequent to Shakespeare's expiry, Jonson tackled the panoptic task of setting down the First Folio and casting away the originals. This was in 1623, when Bacon had lapsed into penury. Jonson would have been keen to allay his friend's straits, and the folio's yield would have fitted the bill nicely.
In 1645, there was printed a strange volume entitled The Great Assizes Holden in Parnassus by Apollo and his Assessours. Atop the mountain sat Apollo and, immediately beneath him, Bacon ("The Lord Verulam, Chancellor of Parnassus"), followed by 25 writers and poets, and then, second last at number 26 (and only as a "juror"), "William Shakespere". This artifact has frequently been interpreted as suggesting that Francis Bacon was miles ahead of his coevals and second only to Apollo in the poetical stakes.
That Bacon took a keen interest in civil history is evidenced in his book History of the Reign of Henry VII (1621), his article the Memorial of Elizabeth (1608) and his letter to King James in 1610, lobbying for financial support to indite a history of Great Britain: "I shall have the advantage which almost no writer of history hath had, in that I shall write of times not only since I could remember, but since I could observe.
Bacon and Shake-speare cover completely the monarchs of the period 1377 to 1603 without duplicating one another's historical ground. In 1623, Bacon gave different excuses to Prince Charles for not working on a commissioned treatise on Henry VIII (which had already been covered by the Shake-speare play in 1613). In the end, he wrote only two pages.
On November 1610, conscious that the criticisms of the returning colonists might jeopardize the recruitment of new settlers and investment, the Virginia Company published the propagandist True Declaration (TD) which was designed to confute “such scandalous reports as have tended to the disgrace of so worthy an enterprise” and was intended to “wash away those spots, which foul mouths (to justify their own disloyalty) have cast upon so fruitful, so fertile, and so excellent a country”. The TD relied on the TR and other minor sources and it is clear from its use of “I” that it had a single author. There are also verbal parallels between (a) the TD, and (b) Bacon's Advancement of Learning that suggest that Sir Francis Bacon as Solicitor General might have written the TD and so, by implication, had access to the TR which sourced The Tempest. Some examples of these are presented together with their correspondence to (c) the Shake-speare work.
William Strachey went on to write The History of Travel into Virginia Britannica, a book that avoided duplicating the details of the TR. First published in 1849, three manuscript copies survive dedicated to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland; Sir William Apsley, Purveyor of his Majesty’s Navy Royal; and Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor. In the dedication to Bacon, which must have been composed after he became Lord Chancellor in 1618, Strachey writes “Your Lordship ever approving himself a most noble fautor [supporter] of the Virginia Plantation, being from the beginning (with other lords and earls) of the principal counsel applied to propagate and guide it”.
The 1610-11 dating of The Tempest however, has been challenged by a number of scholars, most recently by researchers Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositskywho argue that Strachey's narrative could not have furnished an inspiration for Shakespeare, claiming that Strachey's letter was not put into its extant form until after The Tempest had already been performed on Nov. 1, 1611. The notion of an early date for The Tempest has in fact a long history in Shakespearean scholarship, going back to 19th century scholars such as Hunter and Elze, who both critiqued the widespread belief that the play depended on the Strachey letter.
The Gesta Grayorum is a pamphlet of 68 pages first published in 1688. It informs us that The Comedy of Errors received its first known performance at these revels at 21:00 on 28 December 1594 (Innocents Day) when "a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players [...]." Whoever the players were, there is evidence that Shakespeare and his company were not among them: according to the royal Chamber accounts, dated 15 March 1595 — see Figure — he and the Lord Chamberlain's Men were performing for the Queen at Greenwich on Innocents Day. E.K. Chambers informs us that "the Court performances were always at night, beginning about 10pm and ending at 1am", so their presence at both performances is highly unlikely; furthermore, the Gray's Inn Pension Book, which recorded all payments made by the Gray's Inn committee, exhibits no payment either to a dramatist or to professional company for this play. Baconians interpret this as a suggestion that, following precedent, The Comedy of Errors was both written and performed by members of the Inns of Court as part of their participation in the Gray's Inn celebrations. One problem with this argument is that the Gesta Grayorum refers to the players as "a Company of base and common fellows", which would apply well to a professional theatre company, but not to law students. But, given the jovial tone of the Gesta, and that the description occurred during a skit in which a "Sorceror or Conjuror" was accused of causing "disorders with a play of errors or confusions", Baconians interpret it as merely a comic description of the Gray's Inn players.
Gray's Inn actually had a company of players during the revels. The Gray's Inn Pension Book records on 11 February 1595 that "one hyndred [sic] marks [£66.67] [are] to be layd [sic] out & bestowyd [sic] upon the gentlemen for their sports and shewes this Shrovetyde [sic] at the court before the Queens Majestie [sic ...].
There is, most importantly to the Baconians' argument, evidence that Bacon had control over the Gray's Inn players. In a letter to Lord Burghley, dated before 1598, he writes, "I am sorry the joint masque from the four Inns of Court faileth [.... T]here are a dozen gentlemen of Gray's Inn that will be ready to furnish a masque". The dedication to a masque by Francis Beaumont performed at Whitehall in 1613 describes Bacon as the "chief contriver" of its performances at Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple. He also appears to have been their treasurer prior to the 1594-95 revels.
The discrepancy surrounding the whereabouts of the Chamberlain's Men is normally explained by theatre historians as an error in the Chamber Accounts. W.W. Greg suggested the following explanation:
The final paragraph of the Gesta Grayorum — see Figure — uses a "greater lessens the smaller" construction that occurs in an exchange from the Merchant of Venice (1594-97), 5.1.92-7:
The Merchant of Venice uses both the same theme as the Gesta Grayorum and the same three examples to illustrate it — a subject obscured by royalty, a small light overpowered by that of a heavenly body and a river diluted on reaching the sea. In an essay from 1603, Bacon makes further use of two of these examples: "The second condition [of perfect mixture] is that the greater draws the less. So we see that when two lights do meet, the greater doth darken and drown the less. And when a small river runs into a greater, it loseth both the name and stream." A figure similar to "loseth both the name and stream" occurs in Hamlet (1600-01), 3.1.87-8:
Bacon was usually careful to cite his sources but does not mention Shakespeare once in any of his work. Baconians claim, furthermore, that, if the Gesta Grayorum was circulated prior to its publication in 1688 — and no one seems to know if it was — it was probably only among members of the Inns of Court.
The orthodox view is that these were commonplace phrases; Baconians claim the occurrence in the last two examples of two ideas from the same Promus folio in the same Shakespeare speech is unlikely.
Bacon's similar take reads thus: "Is not the opinion of Aristotle very wise and worthy to be regarded, 'that young men are no fit auditors of moral philosophy', because the boiling heat of their affections is not yet settled, nor tempered with time and experience?
What Aristotle actually said was slightly different: "Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; [...] and further since he tends to follow his passions his study will be vain and unprofitable [...]. The added coincidence of heat and passion and the replacement of "political science" with "moral philosophy" is employed by both Shakespeare and Bacon. However, Shakespeare's play precedes Bacon's publication, allowing the possibility of the latter borrowing from the former.
Several sources have remarked upon Raleigh's frivolity in the face of his impending execution and the assertion that "[the Commission who tried him] are not yet come back" could refer to the fact that his execution was swift: it took place the day after his trial for treason. Raphael Holinshed, the main source for Macbeth, mentions "the thane of Cawder [sic] being condemned at Fores of treason against the king without further details about his execution, so whoever wrote the lines in the play went beyond the original source.
In Raleigh's trial at Winchester on 17 November 1603, his statement was read out: "Lord Cobham offered me 10,000 crowns for the furthering the peace between England and Spain". In 1.2.60-4 of Macbeth, the King's messenger reports on the king of Norway, who has been assisted by the thane of Cawdor:
Shake-speare was known for his use of anagrams (e.g. the character Moth in Love's Labour's Lost represents Thomas Nashe) and here he has altered Cawder to Cawdor, an anagram of "coward". Some Baconians see this as an allusion to Raleigh's poem the night before his execution.
Some scholars believe that Macbeth was later altered by Middleton, but a reference to Raleigh's execution would be particularly advantageous to the Baconian theory because Bacon was one of the six Commissioners from the Privy Council appointed to examine Raleigh's case.
But more than one Elizabethan traitor put on a brave show for his execution. In 1793, George Steevens suggested that the speech was an allusion to the death of the Earl of Essex in 1601 (a date that does not conflict with Shakespeare's or Oxford's authorship): "The behaviour of the thane of Cawdor corresponds in almost every circumstance with that of the unfortunate Earl of Essex, as related by Stow, p. 793. His asking the Queen's forgiveness, his confession, repentance, and concern about behaving with propriety on the scaffold are minutely described. As Steevens notes, Essex was a close friend of Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton. Essex also employed Bacon as an adviser in the latter's early career in Parliament, until Essex fell out of favour and was prosecuted with Bacon's help.
Most editors of Macbeth simply assume the speech to be fictional and not a deliberate allusion to a specific event.
Most modern critics spurn the anti-Stratfordian claim that Shakespeare had not the education, to write the plays: as the son of an Alderman, he grew up in a family of some importance in Stratford. It would be surprising had he not attended the local grammar school, as such institutions were founded to educate boys of Shakespeare's moderately well-to-do standing, especially since his father John Shakespeare, one of the wealthiest men in Stratford, was an Alderman and later High Bailiff of the corporation. Stratfordian scholars also frequently cite Occam's razor, the principle that the simplest and best-evidenced explanation (in this case that the plays were written by Shakespeare of Stratford) is likely the correct one. A critique of all alternative authorship theories may be found in Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives.. Questioning Bacon's ability as a poet, Sidney Lee asserted: "[...] such authentic examples of Bacon's efforts to write verse as survive prove beyond all possibility of contradiction that, great as he was as a prose writer and a philosopher, he was incapable of penning any of the poetry assigned to Shakespeare." Oxfordian scholars (those who believe that Edward deVere, 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the works of Shake-speare) have cited various examples they say imply that the writer of the plays and poems was dead prior to 1609, when Shake-Speare’s Sonnets first appeared with the enigmatic words “our ever-living Poet” on the title page. These researchers claim that the words “ever-living” rarely, if ever, refer to someone who is actually alive. Additionally, they assert that 1604 is the year that Shakespeare “mysteriously” stopped writing. Oxfordians assert these claims give a boost to the Oxfordian candidacy, as Bacon, (and Shakespeare of Stratford) lived well past the 1609 publication of the Sonnets. See the article on Oxfordian theory for additional information on Oxfordian issues that may relate to the Bacon candidacy.