William Shakespeare: The Conspiracy Theories – Part 1

Shakespeare is one of the most influential figures in human civilization. In 1582, he was eighteen years old. His father had lost most of the family’s modest fortune. His girlfriend, eight years older, was pregnant, so they married. Their child was born, and two years later, they had twins. But to support the family, and to escape from domestic chaos, he left home and headed to London.

He took roles with acting companies, often writing the scripts himself. His first play is a trilogy about King Henry VI achieved modest success, and bigger things were soon to follow. He mastered all the genres: comedy, tragedy, history. For inspiration he borrowed classic stories, stole from fellow playwrights and drew upon his own limitless imagination. In sparkling verse, he explored human experience like no other writer before or since. And in his spare time, he wrote elegant sonnets, some of which were dedicated to an enigmatic Dark Lady.

The Thirtieth of May, 1593, in the suburbs of London, England’s most popular playwright is dead. And to this day, the circumstances of his death remain a mystery: Christopher Marlowe. In the new mass medium of the theater, Marlowe was a first superstar. His spectacular plays thrilled Elizabethan audiences. His successor on the London stage – William Shakespeare; until Marlowe’s death, Shakespeare was virtually unknown. Now, within one year, he’s taking audiences by storm. Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, these are the plays that spread his name around the world. But did he really write all these plays himself?

A number of experts have doubted Shakespeare’s authorship. Where could he have gained a wealth of knowledge contained in his dramatic works? He was merely a son of a glovemaker, he did not attend university, and he left no manuscripts behind. Most likely, his wife and children were illiterate. And his will contains no evidence whatsoever that this man is a writer. Could the name Shakespeare be a pseudonym for an anonymous author who had to remain incognito because he was politically persecuted? What are the reasons for suspecting a different person behind Shakespeare the playwright? And who could it be instead?

Some researchers are convinced it might have been the dramatic genius Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare emerges from nowhere, almost over night. Until then, Marlowe dominated the theatrical scene. So, is Marlow’s death connected to Shakespeare’s sudden success? Shakespeare – the world’s most famous author, and one of its greatest unsolved mysteries.

Stratford on Avon – a small town in the English midlands, northwest of London. Today, it’s a site of pilgrimage for millions of visitors seeking to celebrate the poet and dramatist who is not of an age, but for all time: William Shakespeare. The question of whether the person buried here really is the author of Shakespeare’s works remains unresolved. Perhaps, for good reason.

Here are the 37 plays attributed to William Shakespeare, and here are the only surviving records about him. No manuscripts, no book, no letter mentions William Shakespeare from Stratford as being a writer.

William Shakespeare’s life is an unrivaled story of success, but how could Shakespeare become the world’s most famous writer?

In the year 1564, he is born in Stratford on Avon. His father has a substantial income from sheep farming and wool trading. Despite his humble origin, as a son of a peasant, he has gained a position of respect in the town. Stratford on Avon is a prosperous town with around 1500 inhabitants. John Shakespeare, William’s father, is its mayor from 1568 to 1569. His multiple business activities as glovemaker, a stage agent, a money lender amongst others, seemed to have forced William’s father to frequently sail close to the wind. He charges high interest rates, and has a reputation of being a usurer. Shakespeare’s father married Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy country squire. William is a third of eight children and their first son. Three of his sisters die in infancy.

William is still a boy when John Shakespeare gets into financial difficulties. His sympathies for the Catholic faith probably do not make things easier for him. At the time of intense religious unrest, the new Protestant state religion is struggling against underground Catholic conspiracies. The possession of Catholic devotional objects is suspicious and extreme. It could easily result in execution. As mayor of Stratford, John Shakespeare has to avoid any suspicion of contact with heretic, anti-protestant circles.

At the age of seven, William is probably sent to the King’s Grammar School. For more than 500 years, the classroom has remained almost the same, and is still used for lessons today. The school curriculum includes Latin and Greek; children, only boys at this time, have to cram grammar, logic and rhetoric. They read classical drama, and epics by Seneca, Plautus, Virgil, and perhaps Ovid. The boys spend almost the entire day at school, from six in the morning, till five in the afternoon. Discipline is the order of the day. Here, the young William Shakespeare would have to receive the foundations of an education that enabled him to write literature with a vocabulary of more than 20 000 words – perhaps the broadest vocabulary of any poet in history. Is this possible?

It’s likely that William attended the local school, even though there are no records. The headmaster there was a renown scholar, and William would have certainly learn Greek and Latin, but he did not learn French and Italian, languages he must have known to write his plays. So, where did he get his learning and his inspiration?

London is ravaged by the plague, the theatres are shut down. Theatrical companies seek new venues in the countryside. Geographically, Stratford is located in a favorable position. Many well-known theatrical companies pass through the town to perform on the private estates of nearby aristocrats. Certainly the young William witnessed their performances at Stratford, and perhaps this is where he had his first experience of acting. Shakespeare might actually have joined one of these troops when he was eighteen, to replace another actor who just died. However, there’s no convincing evidence for this claim.

In Canterbury, the famous site of medieval pilgrimage, traveling theater companies would have performed too and could’ve inspired Shakespeare’s rival – Christopher Marlowe. His fate is closely interwoven with that of Shakespeare, and not just because they were born in exactly the same year. Many of those who doubt that Shakespeare is the author of the plays published under his name believe that Marlowe is the real author. Marlowe had an extent education with two scholarships, first the King’ School in Canterbury, and the second of the University of Cambridge. There he studied for six years and acquired skills that were useful for his career as a dramatist and writer.

William Shakespeare in contrast is unable to finish school. His father needs him as an apprentice. William has to become a glovemaker. For his father, these are difficult times. The wool market has collapsed, his creditors are threatening to sue him. Finally he loses his respected position as mayor, and is shunned by Stratford society.

Continued: Shakespeare Conspiracy Theory Part 2