StMU Research Scholars

The Bard vs. The Reverend Wilmot: On the Question of Authorship

The year is 1592, the place is London. A young man has gained notoriety as a fairly decent actor and excellent playwright. He travels with acting companies and later in life performs for a Queen. Years after this man dies, his plays are still being performed and he is idolized by local men and women of his home town. His name goes down in history as the most brilliant playwright to have ever lived, and thousands of people have devoted their lives to studying his writings. How shocking would it be if I told you that man was William Shakespeare? Probably not very shocking. How shocked would you be if I told you some people believe Shakespeare ?

Let me clarify that William Shakespeare was a real man who was baptized April 26, 1564. He married a woman named Anne Hathaway and had two daughters. Shakespeare worked as a local tradesman and property investor. There are definitive records to show that he was involved in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Theatre Company. Yet to the surprise of many, explicit documentation of his theater involvement beyond property shares is almost nonexistent.1 The lack of such documentation caught the attention of a small-town preacher who questioned the authenticity of Shakespeare’s writing.

Reverend James Wilmot as shown in his biography, The Life of the Author of the Letters of Junius | Olivia Serres | 1813 |

Reverend James Wilmot, born in 1726, worked in Warwickshire as a clergyman. He was the first to doubt that Shakespeare wrote any of his plays. Wilmot began his research by scouring every personal and public library within a fifty mile radius of Stratford. When Wilmot could not find any books that belonged to Shakespeare, he questioned the validity of his writings. Next, he conducted interviews in the town where Shakespeare grew up, but he couldn’t find any one with anecdotes about the famous playwright or his surviving family. This was suspicious to the Reverend, because how could somebody so well known to others be unknown in his hometown? What interested and confused Wilmot was this inability to find anyone with anecdotes about Shakespeare or any of his surviving family. Because of this, Reverend Wilmot of Warckshire concluded that William Shakespeare was not the beloved English playwright, and that instead it was Sir Francis Bacon.2 He believed it was Sir Francis Bacon who wrote under the pen name of William Shakespeare because of Bacon’s background. The Reverend questioned how a man with no personal literature could have such an extensive vocabulary. With this came the doubt that a poor man who worked as a trader could have such knowledge of court life and politics.2

Yet Wilmot’s studies were never published. He kept them hidden from the world in fear of retaliation. In an effort to destroy all ties to his research, before he died he commanded his doctor to burn all personal papers and anything that contained his handwriting. He also instructed that all the servants working for him watch as a way to ensure everything was burned. This came as a shock to his family and servants; everyone believed that he would have at least published a collection of his sermons. His niece believed he had his writings burned to hide the fact that he was the true author of Letters of Junius, hence the title of her biography, The Life of the Author of the Letters of Junius.4 Because all his writings were burned, it wasn’t until 1932 that his insights were rediscovered. Before that, it was widely believed that Delia Bacon (no relation to Sir Francis Bacon) was the first to publicize the notion that William Shakespeare did not write his plays in her book The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare.2

Since the publication of Delia Bacon’s book in 1857, many books and journals have been published either in defense or rebuttal of these “Anti-Stratfordian” claims.2 Many of these books address what Reverend Wilmot first found suspicious and many delve deeper. Much of the debate surrounds William Shakespeare’s reputation as an “unlettered peasant” and whether or not the son of such a poor family could have written at such a high intelligence level.7 Regardless of who Shakespeare really was, his plays are still enjoyable throughout the centuries and there is still much to learn from him.

  1. Alexander Hugo Schulenburg and Jeffery Miffin, “Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon,” in Popular Controversies in World History: Investigating History’s Intriguing Questions (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 192.
  2. William Rubinstein, “Who was Shakespeare?,” in History Today (London: 2001), 31.
  3. William Rubinstein, “Who was Shakespeare?,” in History Today (London: 2001), 31.
  4. Olivia Serres, The Life of the Author of the Letters of Junius: The Rev. James Wilmot, D.D., Late Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, Rector of Barton-on-the-Heath, and Aulcester, Warwickshire, and One of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for that Country: with Portrait, Fac Similes, &c ( London: E. Williams Bookseller, 1813), pxxi-pxxiii.
  5. William Rubinstein, “Who was Shakespeare?,” in History Today (London: 2001), 31.
  6. William Rubinstein, “Who was Shakespeare?,” in History Today (London: 2001), 31.
  7. William T. Hastings, “Shakespeare Was Shakespeare,” The American Scholar 28, no. 4 (1959): 479-88.

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6 Responses

  1. Although I am not greatly a fan of Shakespeare’s work, the idea that his work was not his is completely inconceivable. Even shakespeare’s letters to his wife were incredibly poetic, but were still nonetheless tragic if I’m honest. Shakespeare’s work were consistent, methodical and tragic, it would take Shakespeare finding a ghostwriter who would stay with him and write in secret consistently for decades.

  2. Nice article. I just started reading King Lear in my literature class and I am looking forward to where that will go. Then again it is a tragedy so maybe not. We talked a little about whether or not Shakespeare was actually a real person because as your article states there are some who do not believe that he was. To those who say he was to poor to ever have had a good enough education to write the way he did I say so what. People learn in lots of different ways. Just because he may not have had an extensive education does not mean that he was incapable of learning complicated words, or of writing plays

  3. Great article. I remember my high school English teacher mentioning something about this controversy regarding Shakespeare, Bacon, and Marlowe. I think one of the things that made Shakespeare so popular at the time was that he wrote to the crowd, the common person. He may not have attended college, but he was educated simply because he could read and write at a time when most average people were still functionally illiterate. I found it interesting that Wilmot wanted his papers to be destroyed instead of putting his idea out there for further research at the time.

  4. It is shocking that only a few generations after Shakespeare, the legitimacy of his work was questioned. This article takes on the topic well by covering Reverend Wilmot and not taking on the debate that follows. It is awesome to see the beginning of the speculation. This is a subject that has always fascinated me. Of course, it is always assumed that the greatest playwright wrote his plays. But given the many different versions of Shakespeare’s plays that have been collected, it is difficult to assume that these were all written by one man.

  5. I am not exactly a literature person so I had never heard about these theories about Shakespeare not being the author of the famous plays that are credited to him today. The argument that because he was from a poor family he couldn’t write such masterpieces with extensive vocabulary and deep themes seems reasonable to me.Yet, it could still be that he was a great learner and had a gift for storytelling. But I guess we will never know.

  6. I have heard theories regarding the legitimacy of William Shakespeare being the author of many of his plays. However, I had not known that Sir Francis Bacon was thought to have been the original author. I have writings belonging to Sir Francis Bacon, but not once did I ever consider him to be anything more than what he was. It also surprised me to learn how he ordered to have much if not most of his works burned.

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