Nov. 1, 2011 -- The film "Anonymous" has ruffled the feathers of many literary scholars for its fictionalized portrayal of the ongoing conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare did not write his own plays but instead stole credit for works written by someone else. The film suggests the plays were written in secret by a nobleman seeking to hide his creative overtures in what was considered a tawdry and low profession at the time.
Questions over whether William Shakespeare was in fact the true author behind his entire catalog of fiction have sprung up ever since the Bard's works first grew to widespread popularity more than 200 years after his death. This movement has been called the "anti-Stratfordian" view, reflecting Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Although Shakespearean scholars overwhelmingly concede that Shakespeare did author the works bearing his name, some dissenters believe that Shakespeare's common background and lack of details about his early life and education make the man an ill fit as the scribe behind what are considered some of the greatest literary achievements in the English language.
As a result, several alternative candidates have been suggested as the true author, with Shakespeare himself being either an invention or an outright fraud.
Edward de Vere, the suggested alternative Shakespeare depicted in "Anonymous," is considered the most likely contender to be the real Bard by those who question Shakespeare's authorship.
De Vere was a nobleman, the Earl of Oxford, and a patron of the arts. According to those who promote his candidacy as the real Shakespeare, de Vere had the education, the resources and the access to royalty to be able to create the plays with the creativity and insight into that world that are achieved in many of Shakespeare's works. Codes allegedly hidden in the language of the play, such as repeated acronyms of his name, bolster the argument that de Vere is the true author.
Shakespearean scholars, however, are quick to dismiss de Vere as the true author given that he died in 1604, years before many of the plays attributed to Shakespeare were performed and two decades before the publication of the "First Folio," a book containing 36 plays. (However, Shakespeare himself died seven years before its publication.)
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Throughout much of the history of skepticism surrounding Shakespeare's authorship, Sir Francis Bacon, an English statesman and important philosopher of the Jacobean era, was considered the most likely author behind Shakespeare's catalog of plays and poems, until de Vere claimed that spot in the 20th century.
As is the case with de Vere, Bacon allegedly hid his talents as a playwright out of fear he would be looked down upon for dabbling in what was considered a lowly profession. Similarly, Bacon had the education and upbringing that would give him the ability and the insights necessary to craft the complex characters and narratives woven throughout Shakespeare's plays.
Surviving works of poetry attributed to Bacon provide ammunition to those of the Statfordian view, who claim that Bacon's talents as a wordsmith simply were not up to par with those of Shakespeare himself.
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A popular poet and playwright who was one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe is considered another likely alternative by those holding the anti-Stratfordian view.
Although Marlowe was a commoner like Shakespeare, Marlowe had several years of higher education. Marlowe may have been killed in 1593, but anti-Stratfordian scholars allege that this was just a ruse and that he soon adopted the pseudonym William Shakespeare. As evidence for this claim, anti-Stratfordian scholars point to the fact that the first references to William Shakespeare as a playwright cropped up roughly two weeks after Marlowe's supposed death.
As is the case with de Vere and Bacon, anti-Stratfordian scholars also allege clues are hidden within the style and language of plays attributed to Shakespeare. However, as is the case with the past two candidates, all attribution of authorship to Marlowe relies on circumstantial evidence and outright conspiracy theories.
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Not all of the potential "real Shakespeares" were men. In one version of history, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, was in fact the true Bard.
Educated, aristocratic and an accomplished literary talent in her own right, Herbert has the foundation to make her a credible alternative to Shakespeare himself. As a woman, she also would have been barred from publishing her own works for performance on a public stage, giving her a motivation to want to conceal her identity. (However, Herbert is credited with being the first female playwright of the English language.)
Even though the First Folio went to press and was published after her death, Shakespeare did dedicate the work to her two sons, fueling modern-day speculation that she may have indeed been Shakespeare.
Well-traveled, educated and of noble birth, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, first became considered a possibility as the real Shakespeare after a spy report emerged claiming that he had secretly penned comedies for the stage, although no works attributed to him have ever surfaced.
Stanley also founded multiple acting companies and had a well-known interest in the theater. Supporters of Stanley as the real Shakespeare also suggest that references to his travels appear in Shakespeare's plays. (It also doesn't hurt that he has the same initials as Shakespeare: W.S.)
Although Statfordian scholars acknowledge that Stanley and Shakespeare likely crossed paths and may have even worked together, mainstream scholarship rejects Stanley as the primary author of Shakespeare's entire catalog.
Fulke Greville may not have a name that rings throughout history, but he is yet another candidate put forward by anti-Statfordians as the real Shakespeare.
An educated spy, soldier and literary talent, Greville worked closely with Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Dyer, each considered an alternative candidate to Shakespeare. Because of his background, education and literary connections -- though he never had contact with Shakespeare himself -- some scholars view Greville as a possibility for the real Shakespeare.
The case for Greville, however, is flimsy, with no direct evidence suggesting that he is the true author of Shakespeare's works.
Although many anti-Stratfordians have a single candidate they point to as the likely Shakespeare, another hypothesis, known as group theory, suggests that no single author was responsible for the works of William Shakespeare. Rather, since collaboration was so commonplace among playwrights of the era, the name William Shakespeare was used instead.
In this scenario, the real Shakespeare might be any number of combinations of the aforementioned candidates as well as others who worked in the same literary circles, including Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland; Sir Henry Neville, an English politician; and dramatist Robert Greene, who was even a critic of Shakespeare.
Many of these theories have been dismissed, however. Nearly all depend on indirect evidence as well as a skewed reading of Shakespeare's text.
After all, in Shakespeare's own time, there are no accounts of the authorship of any of his pieces being attributed to anyone else.
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