8 Shakespeare Conspiracy Theories

Everyone from Mark Twain to Keanu Reeves has expressed doubts that Shakespeare was Shakespeare—and the anti-Stratfordians have floated plenty of conspiracy theories about the Bard’s “true” identity.

There are a lot of people who don’t think Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare.
There are a lot of people who don’t think Shakespeare was actually Shakespeare. / Coco Flamingo/ImageZoo/Getty Images (Shakespeare), oxygen/Moment/Getty Images (background)

William Shakespeare is lauded worldwide for his plays and poems, but there are some people who believe that a glove-maker’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon couldn’t possibly have written such clever, witty, and philosophical works. Despite all of the evidence that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, during the mid-19th century, theories started spreading that Shakespeare was a front for another writer.

Shakespeare scholars dismiss this idea, but it has attracted some famous names over the years: Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain, and Sigmund Freud all doubted Shakespeare, and more recently, Keanu Reeves revealed himself to be part of the conspiracy club. But though they agree that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare, anti-Stratfordians don’t agree on who the alternative playwright was (or even if Shakespeare was real). Here are some of the most popular and bizarre theories.

1. The Baconian Theory

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

In 1856, William Henry Smith (whose family newsagent business eventually became the British chain WHSmith) put down in writing his doubt that Shakespeare, “a man of limited education,” was the author of the plays. He instead offered up statesman Francis Bacon, arguing that his legal education and experience at court accounted for the expertise demonstrated in Shakespeare’s works.

Orville Ward Owen took the Baconian theory a step further by creating a cipher wheel: two large spools that held a canvas, onto which Owen pasted Shakespeare’s works alongside his contemporaries’ works for analysis. Through the use of this device, Owen claimed to have decoded a cipher that Bacon had set into the plays, which revealed himself to be Queen Elizabeth I’s secret son. Owen was convinced that evidence of Bacon’s parentage and authorship could be found within a secret vault beneath the River Wye. Owen excavated sections of the river, but no vault was found.

Another Baconian who sought out hidden messages in the works of Shakespeare is Isaac Platt, a doctor and biographer of Walt Whitman. He believed that the Latin word honorificabilitudinitatibus, used in Love’s Labour’s Lost, was an anagram of the phrase Hi ludi, tuiti sibi, Fr. Bacono nati, which translates to “These plays, produced by Francis Bacon, guarded for themselves.”However, not only is there no hard evidence that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, there is also plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that he did not. Bacon’s few dramatic works—written while he worked at the Inns of Courtlack the skill of Shakespeare. Plus, as I, Robot author Isaac Asimov pointed out, there are scientific mistakes in the plays that the very highly educated Bacon was unlikely to have made.

2. The Oxfordian Theory

Edward De Vere
Edward De Vere / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Next up is Interview with the Vampire author Anne Rice and Keanu Reeves’s pick: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. First proposed in 1920 by J. Thomas Looney, this theory argues that Oxford had the education and court credentials that Shakespeare lacked, but that he may not have wanted to use his own name because of the stigma of aristocracy publishing (a stigma that wasn’t actually real).

Looney begins by pointing out that “there is no vestige of evidence that William Shakspere was ever inside of a school for a single day.” But absence of proof does not mean proof of absence, especially when there are no surviving records from Stratford’s grammar school. Shakespeare was even entitled to a free place at the school thanks to his father holding a position on the town council. Although Shakespeare didn’t attend university, his probable grammar school education furnished him with knowledge of Latin, philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry.

As for why Oxford is the most likely candidate, his supporters point out that he was a patron of theater and that there are parallels between his life and incidents within the plays—both Oxford and Hamlet were captured by pirates and then left on a beach stark naked, for example. But this theory fails to account for Shakespeare and Oxford’s vastly different writing styles [PDF], and the fact that Oxford died in 1604, after which Shakespeare continued writing plays. Unless Oxford figured out a way to write from beyond the grave, this theory can’t be true. (Sorry, Keanu.)

3. The Prince Tudor Theory

All Oxfordians support de Vere’s authorship, but they aren’t entirely in agreement about the details. The main branching theory, known as the Prince Tudor theory, is that Oxford and Queen Elizabeth were in a secret relationship that led to the birth of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Oxford apparently hid the details of Southampton’s royal descent in the plays and sonnets, but he couldn’t reveal his identity and so used Shakespeare’s name.

A further twist in this tale is that Oxford was also a son of Elizabeth’s, making him Southampton’s father and half-brother. This incestuous version, called “the Prince Tudor Part II theory” [PDF], was dramatized in the 2011 film Anonymous.

4. The Marlovian Theory

Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe / Keystone/GettyImages

Basically all of Shakespeare’s contemporary playwrights have been suggested as the true author, but the leader of the pack is suspected spy Christopher Marlowe. When examining Shakespeare’s writing against his contemporaries, both Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (a physicist and meteorologist) and Calvin Hoffman (a writer and Broadway press agent) concluded that his style matches Marlowe’s. While Hoffman points out some linguistic parallels and holds them up as proof that Marlowe was Shakespeare, Mendenhall acknowledged that stylistic matching between the authors is possible.

Along with linguistic similarities, this theory is helped by the hazy details of Marlowe’s death. He was murdered on May 30, 1593, by Ingram Frizer, but whether this was a drunken brawl or a deliberate assassination (Marlowe was already in trouble with the law for writing about atheism) remains unknown.

But if Marlowe died just as Shakespeare was getting started (his first plays were probably written around 1589–1591), how could he have possibly written the plays and poems? Well, Marlovians believe that he faked his own death to avoid trial and potential execution. The theory goes that he then published under Shakespeare’s name, first using it on a poem, “Venus and Adonis,” mere days after his staged death.

5. The ‘Shakespeare Was a Woman’ Theory

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke
Mary Sidney. / Print Collector/GettyImages

While most of the proposed alternative authors of Shakespeare’s works are men, there are a few women who make the list, with the top choice being Mary Sidney, an influential noble-born writer and literary translator. One of the major advocates of this theory is writer (not the actor/comedian) Robin Williams, who argues that Sidney had both the ability and the opportunity to write the plays. Sidney was highly educated, had court connections, fostered a literary group, and, along with her husband, provided patronage for Pembroke’s Men, an acting company that performed some of Shakespeare plays.

Williams argues that Sidney being Shakespeare explains the “Fair Youth” sonnets because they mirror Sidney’s romance with a younger man. She claims that it also explains why Shakespeare’s First Folio was dedicated to Sidney’s two sons, William and Philip Herbert. But there’s an easy explanation for that: The brothers took after their parents by becoming patrons of the arts—William, for instance, was a patron of playwright Ben Jonson and architect Inigo Jones—which explains why they would have funded the Folio when their mother wasn’t the author.

6. The Nevillean Theory

First suggested in 2005 by lecturer Brenda James and history professor William Rubinstein, diplomat Sir Henry Neville’s candidacy as the real Shakespeare was put forth based on his European travels matching locations in the Bard’s plays, locations which the man from Stratford never visited and so couldn’t have written about. This theory conveniently ignores two facts: The plays were written using sources and they feature geographical errors. While Neville visited Bohemia and surely knew that it is landlocked, in The Winter’s Tale the country has a coast, a mistake which also crops up in one of the sources consulted by Shakespeare: Robert Greene’s Pandosto.

Similarly, the argument that Shakespeare couldn’t have written Henry V because he couldn’t speak French (which Neville could) not only assumes that Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with the language, but also ignores the straightforward explanation that he simply asked for help—perhaps, for instance, from the French family he lodged with in London for many years.

Nevilleans also point to documentary evidence such as the Tower Notebook, which they claim was written by Neville and contains phrases which made it into Henry VIII. However, Neville’s authorship of the notebook is unproven and these sections of the play may not have even been written by Shakespeare—John Fletcher served as his collaborator on the play.

7. The Group Theory

One of the earliest proposed theories was that Shakespeare’s plays were so extraordinary that they couldn’t possibly have been written by just one person. From the mid-1850s onwards, Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis) pushed the idea that the plays were written by a “little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organize popular opposition against the government.”

According to Bacon, the main players in this group were Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and Edmund Spenser. As with the other theories on this list, Bacon’s argument is rooted in classism (she described Shakespeare as a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play actor”) and isn’t backed up by any evidence beyond cryptic readings of the plays.

8. The Alien Theory

Squares overlapping to form an alien face
Some believe Shakespeare was an alien. / Steven Puetzer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Admittedly, this isn’t one of the widely touted theories about Shakespeare’s identity, but there are some who believe that the Bard’s works display such talent because they weren’t written by a human at all, but instead by an alien of superior intelligence. Believers say that this theory accounts for Shakespeare’s familiarity with a huge range of subjects—including astronomy, botany, and law—and for his limited paper trail (although the loss of documents from the Renaissance also accounts for this). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this theory hasn’t gained much traction.

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