Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.


For sheer longevity, no conspiracy theory can match the notion that William Shakespeare did not write tile plays that have been attributed to him. The plays contain too much accurate detail about distant places of affairs at court to have been written by someone of as low social standing as Shakespeare, goes one argument. The plays display too wide a range of style, goes another. Shakespeare was not educated enough and Stratford-on-Avon was too backward a place to have produced a playwright of such caliber, goes a third. And so, almost every prominent Elizabethan has been suggested at one time or another as the author of one or more of Shakespeare's plays: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh and of course, Francis Bacon.

Bacon is a favorite candidate because he wrote some of the earliest modern works on codes and ciphers, and so generations of effort have been wasted trying to find hidden ciphers in the Bard's plays that would prove them to be Bacon's work. Why Bacon, or anyone else, would be content to ghost write plays and remain silent while they were receiving acclaim is a mystery the Baconians do not really address properly; it certainly does not fit the personalities of most Elizabethan court celebrities. 

I've seen the argument that writing plays was considered a low-class occupation beneath the dignity of the aristocracy, or that the author needed to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, but surely if Shakespeare's plays were on target enough to make such measures necessary, Elizabethan society would have been abuzz with speculation as to who the "real" author was. We need only recall the flap over the novel Primary Colors to see that.

It must be admitted that there are literary works with hidden codes and messages. An anonymous Latin work of 1616 uses the first letters of each of its 53 paragraphs to spell "Franciscus Godwinvvs Landavensis Episcopus hos conscripsit" --- "Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandalf, wrote these lines". The spelling and grammar are flawless. A Spanish history of New Mexico published in 1812 was supposedly written by Don Pedro Baptista Pino, Count of Torene, but the real ghost-writer slipped his identity in anyway. The first letters of each sentence in three particular paragraphs spell out Juan Lopez Cancelada. In both these cases there is no doubt the hidden message is real; a simple rule brings out a straight-forward, error-free message. The same cannot be said for any of the alleged Shakespearean ciphers.

A central figure in the Shakespeare-Bacon theory is the redoubtable Ignatius Donnelly, who has been aptly dubbed "The Prince of U.S. Cranks". Donnelly found time to pursue a career in politics as well as develop not one but three major crank theories: Ragnarok, a catastrophe myth very similar in many ways to the ideas of Velikovsky, the Lost Continent of Atlantis, and the existence of a hidden message in Shakespeare's plays. The latter idea he developed in 1888 in a massive two-volume work, The Great Cryptogram. According to Donnely's own account, he had been working for a long time on proofs that Bacon was really the author of Shakespeare's plays. Quite by accident, he found a reference to Bacon's cipher in a book belonging to his young son, a book of children's amusements of the sort popular in the late 19th century. Here we see in sharp clarity the essential shallowness of the psaudoscientist. Donnelly had supposedly been studying the Bacon-Shakespeare question for a long time, yet he was entirely unaware of Bacon's well-known interest in ciphers until he stumbled accidentally across a reference to it in a child's puzzle book.

As William Friedman notes in The Shakesperean Ciphers Examined, Donnelly completely misunderstood Bacon's method. The cipher Donnelly was so entranced by actually depended on embedding a message in a longer dummy text using different type faces. Obviously such a cipher could only be decoded from the original printing of Shakespeare's/Bacon's plays. Donnelly eventually developed complex numerical schemes for working out the hidden messages, but Donnelly's methods left enormous latitude for varying the rules to make the message come out right. Friedman actually reproduced some of Donnelly's analysis of Act II, Scene I from Henry IV; it is a maze of complexity that would awe Rube Goldberg. Donnelly's rules were so flexible that one could literally use them to obtain any desired text. One of Donnelly' rules was that names could be spelled approximately or phonetically. Joseph Gilpin Pyle used Donnelly's methods to obtain this message from Hamlet: "Don nil hee (Donnelly) the author, politician and mountebanke, will work out the secret of this play. The Sage is a Daysie"! A British clergyman, A. Nicholson, found "Master Will I Am Shak'st spurre writ the play and was engaged at the curtain" using Donnelly's rules and the same text that Donnelly used to work out his system!

Incidentally, one can also "prove" that Shakespeare helped produce the King James Bible. When the King James Bible came out in 1611, Shakespeare was 46 years of age. The 46th word of Psalm 46 is "shake", and the 46th word from the end of Psalm 46 is "spear"! Actually, there is no real evidence that Shakespeare collaborated in translating the King James Bible. The 46th Psalm looks impressive, but is pure coincidence.

Never spoof pseudoscience. You'll be taken seriously every time. An American, Herbert Janvrin growne, published a pamphlet in 1887 that purportedly deciphered Shakespeare's epitaph, using rules that were a good deal simpler than Donnelly's, and found the message "Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays". Although Browne repeated on a number of occasions that the pamphlet was intended as satire, it was taken seriously by Baconians for some time. This makes a good deal of sense. A sense of humor is a sense of the ridiculous. A person who falls for ridiculous ideas is not likely to recognize satire. Small wonder most pseudoscientists and extremists in general (the political equivalents of pseudoscientists) are humorless except when it comes to ridiculing their opponents. One of Donnelly's more pointed critics wrote: "When men like Donnelly are born, they are given a kind of intellectual armor which will protect them from ridicule at the same time as it insulates them from reason. Perhaps it is just as well; to be at once ridiculous and sensitive to ridicule would be far more harrowing."

Another leading figure in the Bacon saga was Elizabeth Wells Gallup, one of the few Baconians to try actually using Bacon's ciphers to try to find hidden messages in Shakespeare's plays. Her work came to the attention of "Colonel" George Fabyan, a wealthy textile executive who never actually saw military service. Fabyan set up a research center for Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank Laboratories on his estate at t Geneva, Illinois. One of the researchers at Riverbank was William F. Friedman, who was hired in 1915 and who met his wife Elizabeth at Riverbank. The two left Riverbank in 1920 to work for the Government, and during World War II were leaders in U.S. code-breaking efforts. In a final irony, in 1957 the Friedmans turned their talents to the Bacon theory and wrote The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, using professional cryptographic techniques to evaluate the many theories about hidden codes in Shakespeare. Though they expressed deep respect for Mrs. Gallup and gratitude for her and Fabyan's support in their early careers, their final conclusion was that neither Fabyan, nor Gallup, nor anyone else, had ever found a real code in Shakespeare. The author of Willaim Shakespeare's plays was William Shakespeare.


Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 5 February 1998, Last Update 5 February 1998

Not an official UW Green Bay site