Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt

Read or download the full introduction here.

Chapter 1    The unreadable Delia Bacon

By common consensus, among both her admirers and her detractors, Delia Bacon’s pioneering book on Shakespeare authorship, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded (1857), is ‘unreadable’. The case she presents, for an alternative theory of Shakespeare authorship, remains unproven, since (as she herself came close to admitting) she could adduce no direct evidence whatsoever to support it. Her work cannot truly be described as comprehensively influential, even within ‘Shakespeare Authorship studies’, as her hypothesis was one of collective and collaborative authorship, whereas virtually all alternative authorship claimants favour a particular individual. Her methodology, which was to elicit from the plays a ‘philosophy’ that could in her view have been understood and expounded only by writers other than William Shakespeare of Stratford, has in the present been superseded, in alternative candidature polemics, by largely biographical readings of the works.

So why should anyone bother to read the writings of Delia Bacon? Why attempt to read the unreadable?

The outlines of Delia Bacon’s life have been thoroughly delineated in some key contemporary studies. I will confine myself to those biographical facts that are relevant to a study of her impact and influence. Born into a cultivated but poor New England background, daughter of a minister, Delia Bacon left school at the age of fourteen and became a schoolteacher. In due course she graduated to teaching adult women, and even lecturing to audiences of women and men in New York. Her initial ventures into writing were of a creative kind: she published some stories, beat Edgar Allan Poe in a newspaper short story competition, and then began writing a play, intended to feature the English star actress Ellen Tree. Bacon clearly felt a strong conflict between her Puritan background and her imaginative bent towards fiction and drama. Eventually the play was published as a work of drama rather than theatre – a ‘dialogue’, ‘not a play’, ‘not intended for the stage’. Around 1845 she began to pursue studies in Shakespeare authorship, driven by a conviction that Shakespeare was not the true author of the works, and that they were in reality written by others.

In America Bacon managed to interest such literary giants as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne in her theories. In 1853 she journeyed to England in search of evidence to prove her case, and met with Thomas Carlyle, who dealt generously with her, though he found her ideas unpalatable. In England she pursued her research, and it was from England that she launched her authorship campaign, in an article ‘William Shakespeare and his Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them’, published anonymously in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1856. After the publication of her book the following year, Delia Bacon was afflicted by a psychological breakdown, repatriated to America, and spent her final years in a sanitorium.

In her Putnam’s essay she systematically laid the foundations of Shakespearian doubt. She claimed, as all alternative authorship proponents claim, that William Shakespeare of Stratford could not possibly have written the plays and poems ascribed to him, for a number of reasons. One was that he apparently did not have the education and experience necessary for their composition, having never attended university, and never travelled abroad. The plays are informed by ‘the highest literary culture of the age’ and Shakespeare of Stratford could not possibly have possessed it. She also found it impossible to believe that a man as devoted to financial and commercial acquisition as Shakespeare could have produced works of such political and philosophical significance.
How could the player’s mercenary motive and the player’s range of learning and experiment give us the key to this new application of the human reason to the human life? How could we understand, from such a source, this new, and strange, and persevering application of thought to life.…
She found it incredible that the author of those works could have gone largely unrecognized and unacknowledged by the great intellectuals of the age; and that such an author could have shown so little concern to publish and preserve the works for posterity.

Hence it follows, not only that William Shakespeare was manifestly not the author of the works attributed to him, but that whoever was the true author, or authors, must have inhabited the higher echelons of Elizabethan and Jacobean society. In Delia Bacon’s work, the aristocratic and courtly characters in Shakespeare’s plays are regarded as the appropriate source for this new ‘philosophy’, which could not conceivably have been within the grasp of uneducated and proletarian actors. The ‘courtly Hamlet’ is contrasted with the group of strolling players he instructs in the third act of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Surely, Bacon argues, the author of Hamlet was more like the Prince than the players?
Condemned to refer the origin of these works to the vulgar, illiterate man who kept the theatre where they were first exhibited, a person of the most ordinary character and aims, compelled to regard them as the result merely of an extraordinary talent for pecuniary speculation in this man, how could we, how could any one, dare to see what is really in them?

…Condemned to look for the author of Hamlet himself – the subtle Hamlet of the university, the courtly Hamlet, ‘the glass of fashion and the mould of form’ – in that dirty, doggish group of players, who come into the scene summoned like a pack of hounds to his service…how could we understand him – the enigmatical Hamlet, with the thought of ages in his foregone conclusions?
Delia Bacon is commonly associated, perhaps simply because of the coincidence of names, with the claim that Lord Bacon was the true author of the Shakespearian œuvre. She did not however argue, as others later did, that the plays were solely the work of Lord Bacon. Indeed, at exactly the same time a separate, and perhaps independent case was being made for Bacon as the sole author, by William Henry Smith. Smith published his own book, Bacon and Shakespeare, the following year, thus coinciding with the publication of Delia Bacon’s. But her argument was quite different from his.

Her case was both more complex and correspondingly more difficult to prove. It was essentially that a ‘school’ of Renaissance intellectuals, including Francis Bacon and led by Sir Walter Ralegh, were responsible for the composition of the plays ascribed to Shakespeare, though their authorship remained cloaked in anonymity. Delia Bacon saw the Elizabethan monarchy, and its Jacobean successor, as a continuum of despotic tyranny, presided over by a paranoid monarch, supported by a repressive civil service and secured by a ruthless secret police. The monarchy and its court were instruments of violent coercion that could tolerate no disloyalty or dissent, and absolutely vetoed freedom of speech. Men such as Ralegh and Bacon, possessed of republican and libertarian ideas that in such conditions were dangerous even to espouse, still more to express, turned to writing plays as a means of covertly disseminating their opinions. Bacon described them as a ‘little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organize a popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise’ (p. 15). The one historical juncture where this conspiracy found the courage to raise its head into public visibility was when followers of the Earl of Essex commissioned a performance of Richard II as a precursor of their attempted rebellion in 1601. Normally understood as an attempt by insurrectionists to use the old play, with its depiction of a monarch’s forced abdication, as a rehearsal for the real deposition of Elizabeth I, Delia Bacon saw it rather as the direct programmatic expression of a conspiracy, involving both the aristocratic insurgents, and their intellectual supporters, who were themselves responsible for authorship of the play. But the rebellion was a failure. ‘Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another. Driven from the open field, they fought in secret’ (p. 37). Through the public medium of the theatre, incendiary political ideas could be promulgated to the people, while their true authors could remain protected by a cloak of anonymity. Had the true authorship of the plays become known to the government, both the plays and their authors would have been violently suppressed.

Read or download the full introduction here

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