The new film, Anonymous, has publicized the persistent controversy about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.
For over two hundred years, successive skeptics have praised the author's wide-ranging intellect and poetic powers, doubting that a Stratford country boy could have written so eloquently about human triumph and tragedy, commoners and kings. The "real" author of Shakespeare's plays, they argued, must have been an aristocrat—Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Derby, or, as portrayed in Anonymous, Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Beginning in the 1800s, impassioned scholars have carried on their detective work, often to extremes, leaving a trail of forged documents, mysterious ciphers, and wild speculation. Some believed that Queen Elizabeth I or even Shakespeare's jilted lover wrote the plays. Because Shakespeare's engagement to "Anne Whateley" appeared in the Worcester Episcopal register on November 27, 1582, and he married Anne Hathaway the next day, a romantic fantasy arose about the first Anne, who supposedly became a nun, composing a series of plays and poetry for her beloved to which he affixed his name.
Convinced that Sir Francis Bacon was the author and the evidence was buried in Shakespeare's grave, American scholar Delia Bacon took a lantern and tools to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford one night in 1856. For hours she stood by Shakespeare's tomb, staring at the inscription," Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To digg the dust encloased heare, Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones." Suffering an emotional breakdown, she was taken back to America and committed to a mental institution (Wadsworth, 1958). Another group of scholars has maintained that the Earl of Oxford carried on an affair with Queen Elizabeth and was the secret author of the plays, although he died in 1604, before Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, were written. In the 1940s two scholars participated in séances with a London medium, who revealed to one that the author was Bacon and to the other that it was Oxford (Shapiro, 2010).
Yet as James Shapiro has explained in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), valid external evidence supports Shakespeare's authorship--including performance records, plays published in quartos, contemporary references linking his name to the plays, and evidence of his collaboration on four later plays with dramatists Thomas Middleton, George Wilkins, and John Fletcher.
Shakespeare's authorship is also affirmed by internal evidence. In the early twentieth century, Shakespeare scholar Caroline Spurgeon searched through his works, discovering the colorful imagery woven through his poetic lines. His dominant images reveal his deep love of nature, his familiarity with the English countryside around Stratford-upon-Avon. He knew the life-cycles of trees and crops, remembered the fragrance of roses and the wild flowers of early spring, and felt a deep sympathy with all living things, especially birds and horses. Comparing Shakespeare's imagery with that of his contemporaries, Spurgeon found significant differences: Marlowe's dominant imagery came from the classics and astronomy while Bacon's came from light and darkness, bodily images, and the Bible.
Shapiro's masterful study (2010) offers ample historical evidence for Shakespeare's authorship, yet "so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see," some people will probably still be drawn to conspiracy theories to explain Shakespeare's dramatic art. But I'm convinced that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, gifted with an imagination that has touched the hearts of audiences for over four hundred years and continues to intrigue, inspire, and delight.
Shapiro, J. S. (2010). Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York, NY: Simon & Schuster
Spurgeon, C. F. B. (1935). Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wadsworth, F. W. (1958). The Poacher from Stratford: A Partial Account of the Controversy over the Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.