Art & Culture

Who wrote Shakespeare's plays? We are about to find out

Anvar Alikhan
Anvar AlikhanApr 27, 2015 | 16:15

Who wrote Shakespeare's plays? We are about to find out

One long-standing Shakespearean controversy has been resolved, at last:

Double Falsehood was a lost Shakespearean play that surfaced a hundred years after his death, but it was promptly denounced as a fake. Recently, however, a team of researchers at the University of Texas - using heavy-duty text analysing software, combined with sophisticated psychological research techniques - have concluded that the play was, indeed, written by Shakespeare himself.


Yet this incident is only the tip of the Shakespeare controversy iceberg. A larger controversy persists around the question of who actually wrote Shakespeare's works.

Ironically, in Shakespeare's time - and for 250 years after - nobody ever doubted his authorship. The controversy began only in the 1850s, when somebody asked how Shakespeare, a man with only a very basic education, could have been the genius who wrote some of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. It is a question that smacks not only of literary snobbery, but also poor judgement.

The theory was put forth that Shakespeare's plays, with their sophisticated allusions to contemporary politics, foreign cultures and foreign languages (not to mention their literary complexity and scintillating wordplay) must necessarily have been written by someone else: someone with a university education, language skills, a knowledge of the world, and an intimacy with matters of the court - and therefore, most likely, an aristocrat by birth.

The theory first propounded was that Shakespeare's plays were, in fact, written by Sir Francis Bacon, an Elizabethan polymath, diplomat and politician. The problem, the theory postulated, was that a gentleman of Bacon's standing could not admit to writing what were considered at the time to be vulgar, popular plays - and so he published them under the name of a semi-literate, uncouth, stage actor named William Shakespeare.


Various codes and ciphers were purportedly found in Shakespeare's works, pointing to Bacon's authorship. Like, for example, the word "honoraficabilitudinitatibus", found in Love's Labour Lost, which is allegedly an ananagram for the Latin words "Hi ludi F Baconis nati tuiti orbi", meaning, "These plays, the offspring of F Bacon, are preserved for the world".

In the wake of this theory, literary detectives went on a treasure-hunting spree in the 19th century, scouring Elizabethan sites in search of evidence to prove Bacon's case. And when it became clear that that Bacon could not have authored Shakespeare's works, a variety of other names were proposed, ranging from Christopher Marlowe, a medieval playwright and diplomat, to the Earl of Oxford, a patron of the arts... and even Queen Elizabeth I herself.

In fact, there have been no less than eighty possible candidates whose names have been suggested. In other words, almost anyone seems to be a possibility, except for Shakespeare himself.

Thus on one side we have the weight of the literary establishment, which brushes aside this entire controversy as being contemptible, and not worthy of discussion. And on the other side we have a small, persistent Not-Shakespeare group that has fascinating conspiracy theories, but little real evidence to back them.


For example, the recent Hollywood film, Anonymous, made an engaging case for the authorship of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a poet, traveller and lover of Queen Elizabeth I, who was deeply involved in the politics of the times. The film was slickly made, but its credibility is dubious - especially given the fact that it was directed by Roland Emmerich, whose credentials area series of unmitigatedly schlocky movies, like Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.

That, in a nutshell seems to sum up the position of the Not-Shakespeare group: it never lets facts get in the way of a good story. (As someone also pointed out, the rise of the Not-Shakespeare movement in the 1850s coincides suspiciously with the rise of detective fiction.) For over 150 years now, the controversy has refused to go away.

So where do we go from here?

A few years ago, a team at Dartmouth College, USA, used modern text analysis and data-mining techniques to analyse the writings of Shakespeare and other possible candidates, with a view to resolving the controversy. More recently, Peter Sturrock, Professor Emeritus of applied physics at Stanford, applied Baye's Law - a mathematical theorem which states that any belief must change when it encounters fresh evidence - to examine 25 key authorship questions involved. But both these efforts were limited in scope.

It is now time to put an end to the controversy, once and for all, by bringing the big guns of technology to bear on it. In other words, to subject the question of Shakespeare's authorship to advanced data-mining technologies, and to then cross-check the results with the kind of detailed psychological research techniques used recently to resolve the issue of Double Falsehood.

Poor Shakespeare died in 1616; it is now high time we buried his bones, forever.

Last updated: April 23, 2018 | 14:53
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