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, 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.