Baconian theory



  • The thesis (first put forward by the Revd James Wilmot in 1805)that the plays of Shakespeare were in fact written by SirFrancis Bacon. This most persistent of literary red herrings is basedon the assumption that Shakespeare could not have possessed the knowledgeand culture revealed in his works and thrives upon our ignorance ofhis life. In 1887 Ignatius Donnelly published The Great Cryptogram,which professed to show that cryptograms in the plays revealed Baconas the undoubted author; the cryptographic method was further advancedby Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence and others. Some have gone further,arguing that 'Shakespeare' was a wholly fictitious concept improvisedto disguise the political thoughts of Bacon, Raleigh, and Sidney;proof, it is said, of this claim will be found in the playwright'sgrave (as yet unopened). Bacon has also been credited with the Essaysof Montaigne, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and the playsof Christopher Marlowe. However absurd it may seem, the theory hashad many distinguished converts over the years, including Mark Twain,Henry James, Helen Keller, and Sigmund Freud. W. S. Gilbert, who thought little of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's performances of Hamlet, suggested that the issue might be resolved once and for all by having both Bacon's and Shakespeare's coffins dug up; whichever corpse turned first in his grave at hearing Tree's recitation would be the true author.

    Several other candidates for the authorship have since beenproposed, including Elizabeth I herself. In the last hundred yearsthe Baconian theory has been rivalled by the so-called Oxfordiantheory, according to which the plays were written by a minorpoet, Edward De Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford (see Oxford'sMen). Proposed in the 1920s by the unfortunately named T.J. Looney, the theory found a noted advocate in the politician EnochPowell. The most striking recent theory was that proposed in 1989by Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader. According to him, there existeddefinite proof that the author was an Arab, one 'Sheikh Speare'.