Friday, December 14th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: Deciphering Shakespeare

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Portrait of Delia Bacon. 12454.4The Shakespeare authorship question, now over 160 years old, continues to generate books, conferences, lectures, debates, films, websites, and even blog posts; a lot of people continue to doubt that William Shakespeare the actor actually wrote the plays attributed to him. The controversy itself has become a worthy subject of study, interesting for its longevity, for the strong emotions and uncommon engagement it elicits from all sides, and for the peculiarity of some of its manifestations. Shakespeare skeptics usually congregate around particular candidates for authorship, the current front-runner being Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). But before the Oxfordians (and others) came the Baconians, who believed that the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote the Shakespeare plays. This 1852 letter from Delia Bacon to Ralph Waldo Emerson documents a critical moment in the emergence of the Shakespeare authorship question and the Baconian movement. Although the ill-fated Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis Bacon) has often been called the first Baconian, absolute priority is difficult to establish, because questions about the authorship of the Shakespeare plays were “in the air” during the first half of the nineteenth century, stimulated by Biblical scholarship’s “Higher Criticism,” which used historical and philological approaches to question long-held assumptions about the authorship and content of the Old and New Testaments. These methods were subsequently applied to Classical texts, specifically the Homeric poems, whose authorship they called into question.

Portrait of William Shakespeare. 12473.33Portrait of Francis Bacon. EC.B1328.734l

Delia Bacon (1811-1859) was a fascinating personality, a conservatively raised New England Congregationalist from a poor but very respectable and well-connected family. Her brilliant brother Leonard was able to attend Yale and became the minister of the First [Congregational] Church in New Haven. Delia received only one year of formal schooling, at Catherine Beecher’s school, then struggled through several years as a school teacher and fledgling author, enduring along the way an exceptionally well-documented and ultimately traumatic romance. Eventually, however, she established herself as a public lecturer on world history to adult audiences of both sexes, a remarkable profession for a woman at that period. During this time of activity, as early as 1845, she began to ponder authorship of the Shakespeare plays. While lecturing in Boston and Cambridge in 1850, she met and was admired by some of the most prominent women in those towns. Through the offices Elizabeth Peabody, the sister-in-law of Nathanial Hawthorne, Delia came into contact with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she addressed a letter to him outlining her Shakespearean theories.

Delia Bacon, letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1852, p.1r. MS Am 1280 (139)

This is Delia’s second letter to Emerson. The first, which described her theories in detail, was returned to her at her request and subsequently lost or deliberately destroyed. Although Delia ultimately came to believe that the Shakespeare plays were authored by a group of men, she here refers one author of the plays, probably Francis Bacon, although he is unnamed. Delia’s friend Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and the Morse code, had told her about Francis Bacon’s interest in and use of ciphers. In this letter, she mysteriously alludes to her discovery of a cipher embedded in the text of the plays, which serves to reveal the true identity of their author:

As to the cipher. I am sorry to say that I can not make any direct use of it, at present, for reasons which I am almost afraid to tell you, lest you should think it all a delusion. But I do not wish to make the slightest reference to it, publicly, until I have had an opportunity of testing the truth of a certain specific statement contained in it. And I live in perpetual fear, that what I have said on this subject already, may accidentally furnish a hint, for some unauthorized meddling with it.

She speculates about why such a great poet would choose to remain anonymous, hiding behind the name ‘William Shakespeare,’ yet revealing his true identity to future generations:

According to what I read in the cipher, the author does not wish or intend to give any one the trouble of translating his works for him, but prefers to speak for himself, and has made arrangements for securing that privilege to himself, ultimately, leaving to his commentators, in the interim, the most unlimited privilege of saying what they like.

But does not it seem very absurd, and quite incredible on the ordinary grounds of human action, that a man should take so much trouble to secure a fame so distant? Is it possible to form so vivid an idea of the individualities of men and women, whose great, great, grand-parents, are not yet in existence, as to be able to care in the least what they may think or say about you, especially after one has once had a chance of ascertaining, as this author had had – what the opinions and loves and admirations of those who are born? already amount to?

My idea is, that the very strongest feelings in such a mind would be, the desire to accomplish, worthily, in spite of all opposing influences, the work which such endowment, and such culture prescribed to him, and to do what he could, to leave that work behind him, in all its original proportions, unmarred by the disgraceful limitations of his time. That he would write it, not for that vague and shadowy future, and its “sweet voices”, but for the ever living present which inspired and inexorably demanded it of him, which would still live on “when all the breathers of that world were dead”, and he himself with it, in that work, so dedicated, defying time, immortal, “ever young”.

… And you know, according to my hypothesis, the ordinary ties by which men are connected with the future, were wanting in his case, and therefore on this ‘living monument’ which was to perpetuate his life on the earth, to the last syllable of recorded time, he could afford to lavish, what others spend upon the children, who are to represent them in the earth forever—what others have spent in founding houses, in which their grandeur is to be perpetuated in spite of death.

England seemed to this author on the brink of revolution already. Great political changes were inevitably at hand: — even in his own time the press might yet be free, and with those asinine ears so perpetually present [to?] his fine perceptions, and so perpetually in the way of all his activity, some means of utterance, became inevitable. And it were ‘pity of his life’ if a man who had contrived so many stage tricks in his time, “could not dig one yard below their mines and blow them at the moon.”

Emerson, who was interested in and strongly influenced by the Higher Criticism, proved receptive to Delia’s ideas, although he urged her to seek out proofs of her theories. Emerson’s interest and kindness, however, encouraged Delia in a pursuit that led to her destruction. Having secured some financial backing, she went to England in 1853 to try to prove her theories. There she met Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle, who shrieked at her ideas, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who out of kindness helped her publish her book. While in England Delia avoided libraries and archives and instead haunted the tombs of Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, convinced that she would find documentary proof of her theories buried within them. She began living in relative isolation, and within a short time she fell into poverty. The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded, by Delia Bacon, with Hawthorne’s preface, appeared in England and America in 1857. After the publication of her book, she descended into madness, and in 1859 she died in a Connecticut asylum.

Delia Bacon’s cipher was never clearly elucidated, and did not appear in her book. Its secrets died with her. But her book, in spite of its vagueness and near incoherence, or perhaps because of these qualities, somehow found its readers. Following its publication, the Baconian movement flourished and went international. Its great efflorescence lasted several decades, and was marked by repeated, ever-more-elaborate efforts to discover a cipher that would once and for all reveal Francis Bacon as the true author of the Shakespeare plays. Representative of the Baconian cipher hunters is Ignatius Donnelly, a U.S. Congressman, amateur scientist, and Baconian, whose magnum opus, The Great Cryptogram (London, 1887-1888) devotes nearly 1000 pages to the cipher problem. Reproduced here is a “Fac-simile of a page from the author’s copy of the Great Folio,” which illustrates the laborious nature of Donnelley’s researches and the intensity and dedication he brought to his labors.

Ignatius Donnelly, The Great Cryptogram. KG 8554

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, by James Shapiro (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) is the best place to start for anyone interested in the authorship question. Against all odds, the author manages to shed a remarkable amount of light on the subject.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Elaine Shiner, Rare Book Cataloger, for contributing this post.]


  • Contested Will by James Shapiro is a terrible place to start. He admits he knows next to nothing about the life of Edward de Vere. He also attacks those who doubt the Oxford myth as being like Nazis and Holocaust deniers, which exposes him as a scoundrel. There is an excellent website on Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. I would say that’s the best place to start. Wiki has been hijacked by strident Anti-Oxfordians, and is worthless in this regard. The doubts about Will started when attorneys noted his keen and accurate sense of the law, and deduced he had to have been trained in the law. Experts on Italy swore he had to have been there. Edward de Vere was a tutored royal, and went to Gray’s Inn, and took a grand tour of Italy. His in-laws received the dedication to the First Folio. Hundreds of newly discovered facts about de Vere align him with the Shakespeare Canon. Stratfordians, having no rational explanations for these hundreds of “conincidences” choose to attack Oxfordians as heretical nut-cases. It’s the sign of a losing argument. In short, it’s a great mystery, and the story of Edward de Vere is worth one’s time to read up on.

  • Of course, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

    Just like Twain wrote Twain, and Orwell wrote Orwell.

    It continues to surprise me how smart people keep framing the question as: “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” Properly framed, the question is “Was Shakespeare a pseudonym?”

    The starting point should be William of Stratford upon Avon’s name: it was Shakspere, not Shakespeare. The Stratfordian’s birth, marriage, and funeral records are for “Shakspere,” and that’s how he signed his name.

    The idea of a writer (Edward de Vere) enlisting a frontman (Shakspere of Stratford) to play him using the writer’s pseudonym (Shakespeare) finds a contemporary example in the French writer Romain Gary. When one reads about Gary, one sees the idea isn’t so crazy — and it worked to fool a lot of people.

    Two-time Pulitzer prize-winning historian David McCullough wrote the forward to Charlton Ogburn’s “The Mysterious William Shakespeare,” stating: “The strange, difficult, contradictory man who emerges as the real Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is not just plausible but fascinating and wholly believable.”

    If the esteemed David McCullough thinks the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare is legitimate, why don’t most people?

    The answer, I think, comes down to ignorance and bigotry.

  • correction: The Stratford Myth…..not oxford myth. I hope anyone interested in the greatest literary mystery of all time will read both sides of the debate, and understand that people who have invested their lives in a particular stance will fight like badgers, and attack those with new theories as being lunatics, especially when their position becomes more and more untenable.

  • Regarding Professor Shapiro’s book, before deciding that Shapiro knows what he is talking about, I recommend reading up on some of his more extraordinary “errors” — for example, here:

  • Also, if you want to start reading up on the authorship question in a *real* book (as opposed to the tissue of ideological deceptions embodied in Shapiro’s tract), here are some better options:

    This book actually does what Shapiro’s book purports to do — gives a judicious, self critical, and fair-minded review of the history of the debate.

    This new book is particular good at exposing a number of the fallacies of Shapiro’s mode of reasoning.,stripbooks,202&rh=n:283155%2Ck%3Amark%20anderson%20shakespeare%20by%20another%20name

    This book makes the case for the guy who actually did write the works.

  • There have been many candidates put forward as the real author. Setting group theory aside, it’s likely that there was only one principal author. Therefore, all but one of the candidate proposed are incorrect. It’s likely then that the arguments for them (including WS) will leave many rather cold. One very intriguing subset of Shakespeare’s works are the epitaphs.

    In addition to his own epitaph, there are two further epitaphs that are attributed to Shakespeare (see below). Like his own epitaph, and in contrast to any other sample of his writing, these would seem to be uncharacteristically poor work. Moreover, for an epitaph, one would expect that a writer – particularly a great writer – would strive to produce something of eternal quality. Shakespeare seems to have failed by some distance in each of these three instances.

    It seems most likely that these epitaphs are indeed written by Shakespeare – as it would be a very unusual circumstance to put a false name to an epitaph. Taken together, the three epitaphs indicate that Shakespeare of Stratford was able to write, but, the consistently poor quality strongly indicates that he was not an accomplished writer. He is willing to put his name to published writing, but not enough of a writer to produce good work when it is really needed.

    This solemn obligation of the writer to be truthful in signing an epitaph may provide a logical answer to the question of why Shakespeare didn’t write any eulogy for Elizabeth or Prince Henry. The evidence of the three epitaphs suggests that Shakespeare did not have the skill to eulogise royalty. And, whoever was the real writer of the works attributed to Shakespeare would not do so under a false name – hence the otherwise inexplicable silence.
    Who lies in the tomb?
    ‘Hough’, quoth the Devil, ‘Tis my son John A Combe.’
    Howe’er he lived, judge not;
    John Combe shall never be forgot
    While poor hath memory; for he did gather
    To make the poor his issue, he their father,
    As record of his tilth and seed
    Did crown him in the latter deed.
    (attributed to W. Shakespeare)
    When God was pleas’d (the world unwilling yet),
    Elias James to nature paid his debt,
    And here reposeth; as he liv’d he died,
    The saying in him strongly verified,
    ‘Such life, such death.’ Then, the known truth to tell,
    He liv’d a godly life, and died as well.


  • Roger Nyle Parisious
    December 21st, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    In respect to Mr.Leyland’s selections of Will Shakspere productions :there is a fourth
    “Lousy is Lucy”
    All of these pieces are based on earlier anonymous doggerel.As these attributions come from entirely different sources,there seems to be no doubt that Will in his later days was in the habit of slightly dressing up older jetsam he heard in London and passing it off as his own for benefit of the less educated, and more credulous, of his Stratford neighbors.Interestingly no one in Stratford reported him as giving any renditions in the “Shakespeare” style