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Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon, Baron Varulam, Viscount of St. Albans (1561 – 1621) emerged as the first candidate to replace Shakespeare. As a leading figure of the English Renaissance, he certainly had the biography for it: educated at Cambridge, widely traveled, Bacon was a famous philosopher, one of the inventors of the scientific method, who also led a literary society. He was also the ultimate royal insider – in addition to holding other positions, he was a member of the Privy Council and held the title of Lord Chancellor.

The case for Bacon’s authorship was first made by an American author, Delia Bacon – no relation. While people had questioned Shakespeare’s authorship, she was the first person to name an alternative, though she believed that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays in collaboration with other leading minds of the time, like Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser.

The charge of literary collaboration is now, in fact, a relatively non-controversial one. Today, many of Shakespeare’s plays are believed to have been written with other authors – just not the ones Delia Bacon pointed to.

According to Delia Bacon, the reason that Sir Francis and his learned cabal wanted to conceal their own identities was the so-called “stigma of print,” the notion that being a playwright would be an ignominious career-ender for aristocratic politicians.

But Delia Bacon further suggested that the group needed to remain anonymous because they had a subversive political agenda: they were, she wrote, “a little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to organize a popular opposition against the government.” According to her, drama was politics by other means: “Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another,” she wrote. “Driven from the open field, they fought in secret.”

Delia Bacon was admired by Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, though the latter two cooled on her authorship theories.

Miss Bacon and her like-minded contemporaries relied heavily on the arguments that the plays contained “ciphers” or coded messages about politics and also about their true authors. (This was an idea that arose after her friend, Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, told her that Sir Francis had himself created secret codes.) Others have suggested that Bacon’s “signature” in the form of an elaborate code is “embedded” in some of Shakespeare’s plays.

Orville Ward Owen's 'cipher wheel'

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

The argument for Sir Francis Bacon has largely been supplanted by other theories, but it still has vigorous proponents, as represented by the Francis Bacon Society, founded in 1886, publishers of the journal Baconiana.


NEXT: Perhaps literary rival Christopher Marlowe was the Bard?

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By Paul Hechinger