Update, July 14, 2013: I wrote this essay several years ago. Since then, I've become convinced that the Earl of Oxford (Edward de Vere) is by far the strongest candidate.
In "Shakespeare Vs. Shakespeare," I give some highlights of the authorship controversy that has raged on the sidelines of Shakespearean scholarship for two hundred years. If the doubters are right and the "real" Shakespeare was someone other than the Stratford man, someone with an aristocratic background ... then who was he? Historically, there have been five major candidates. Unfortunately, there are problems with all five.
The first, Francis Bacon, is largely dismissed today. His writing style bears no resemblance to Shakespeare's, and his sober, scientific, rationalistic temperament is worlds apart from Shakespeare's fluid imagination and fascination with magic, alchemy, and the occult.
The second, Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland, seems much too young for the part. He would have written Shakespeare's early works while still a teenager, an unlikely scenario at best.
The third, Christopher Marlowe, has the advantage of being an accomplished poet and playwright. Marlovians postulate that Marlowe, finding himself in legal trouble in 1593, faked his own death and fled to the Continent, where he continued writing plays, using the actor and shareholder William Shakespeare as a front man. This is not entirely implausible -- stranger things happened in the world of Elizabathan spycraft, in which Marlowe is known to have been involved -- but I doubt that Marlowe's cynical and largely humorless plays can be tied so closely to Shakespeare's canon. Certainly there are similarities between the two authors, but these are perhaps best explained as mutual influence, a kind of creative cross-fertilization. Shakespeare's instinctive human sympathy, glittering wit, and subtle layers of characterization are mostly absent from Marlowe's cold, ironical masterpieces. And postulating Marlowe, the son of a cobbler, as the "real" Shakespeare would not help to explain the aristocratic voice so many have heard in Shakespeare's plays. Marlowe's own plays contain few, if any, of the aristocratic touches found in Shakespeare.
The fourth candidate, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, has many of the qualities we might look for, and his personal life bears startling similarities to the biographies of some Shakespearean characters -- Hamlet, for instance, and Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. He wrote poetry, some of which survives, and there are those who see in it the nascent qualities of later Shakespearean triumphs. (Personally I think de Vere's poetry bears more similarity to the clumsy versifying of the "rude mechanicals" that Shakespeare mocked in A Midsummer Night's Dream.) De Vere is certainly today's most popular candidate, and the one around whom most of the doubters have rallied. To me, the biggest problem in attributing the works to de Vere is that he died in 1604, and it appears that Shakespeare's plays continued to be written after that date. Admittedly, the dating of the plays is largely speculative, but one of them, Macbeth, seems to contain a number of allusions to a political conspiracy called the Gunpowder Plot, which was exposed in 1605, a year after de Vere's death. (Garry Wills wrote an entire book, Witches and Jesuits, detailing the play's alleged references to this conspiracy.) If de Vere was Shakespeare, then we have to assume either that these apparently topical references have been misconstrued or that another writer penned much of Macbeth. Neither option is attractive.
De Vere's proponents are not put off by this obstacle. Some of them, indeed, go much further. Nina Green, who maintains a pro-Oxford Web site, cites de Vere as the author not only of Shakespeare's works but of satirical religious tracts ascribed to "Martin Marprelate," and as as the secret identity behind the names Thomas Nashe and Robert Greene. (This, despite the fact that Nashe's life is well documented, and Greene is best known for attacking Shakespeare in print as an "upstart crow.") Such over-enthusiastic defense of one's candidate is partly what has given the doubters' position a bad name in the eyes of academia.
If de Vere died too soon, the fifth candidate, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, suffers from the opposite potential disqualification -- he lived too long. Born in 1561, he died in 1642 at the age of 81. This is decades after the end of Shakespeare's career in 1613. Yet the First Folio, published in 1623, clearly states that Shakespeare is dead.
Of course Derby could have retired early, and the Folio claim could be a lie. For a variety of reasons, I'm somewhat intrigued by Derby and would like to take a closer look at him. (Most of the points in the next two paragraphs are taken from the excellent site The URL of Derby, created by John Raithel.)
The first thing to notice about William Stanley is that his first name and initials match those of William Shakespeare. Stanley was known to sign his correspondence "Will". (In Sonnet 136, the author says plainly: "my name is Will.") We know he was a playwright; a Jesuit spy reported in 1599 that "the Earl of Derby is busied only in penning comedies for the common players." Derby was also the patron of two theatrical companies, Derby's Men and the Children of St. Paul's (a boys' acting troupe). The former company evolved into the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which mounted most of Shakespeare's plays. Derby traveled extensively in Spain, France, Italy, and Germany, and saw military service in the Netherlands. His family crest was an eagle, and there is a well-known poetic allusion to Shakespeare as "Aetion" (from the Greek aetos, eagle). His tutors included (probably) John Davies, who wrote two epigrams to Shakespeare, and (definitely) Richard Lloyd, who is sometimes seen as the model for the pedantic tutor Holofernes in Love's Labor's Lost -- a play describing events at the Court of Navarre (in France) at a time when Derby and Lloyd, traveling together, were likely to have been there.
Verses on a monument to Derby's second son bear some resemblance to Sonnet 55. When Derby married Elizabeth de Vere (Oxford's daughter), the play performed at their wedding is believed to have been A Midsummer Night's Dream. Derby's ancestors are given prominent roles in the history plays, with John of Gaunt delivering Shakespeare's most famous patriotic speech. Derby studied law and was entangled in a fifteen-year lawsuit over the inheritance of ancestral holdings -- facts that are possibly significant when we consider the abundance of legal terminology in Shakespeare.
One intriguing argument made by Derbyites is that Shakespeare may have been alive as late as 1632, because the Second Folio (second edition of Shakespeare's works), issued in that year, shows signs of careful revision that only the author himself would trouble to make. Carl Nordlingwrites, "In 1632 the Second Folio was issued. The text was modernized, e.g. by making the letters u and v correspond to two different sounds, just as they do to-day. This change alone meant an enormous amount of work ... Not only errors have been corrected, there are also numerous amendments that indicate a scrupulous perusal followed by a real weighing of words."
Nordling compares some verses from Act I, Scene v, of Romeo and Juliet, as published in the First and Second Folios.
"O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night ..." (First Folio)
"O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night ..." (Second Folio)
"It is hard to imagine," Nordling writes, "any[one] other than the author to be that particular about single words in a play 40 years old. Of course it was the septuagenarian Earl himself, who proofread and financed the unnecessarily expensive Second Folio in 1632." But other sources, like theUniversity of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, disagree, saying there are "no truly substantive changes" from the First Folio to Second.
A similar argument has been made about Othello, which was published in quarto form in 1622. The next year it appeared in the First Folio in a significantly altered version, with 160 new lines, primarily involving Iago's wife Emilia. Harold Bloom writes, "The revisions made between the Quarto's text and the Folio’s enlarge and sharpen our sense primarily of Emilia, and secondly of Othello and Desdemona.” (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, quoted here.) If these changes were made by the author after the quarto's publication, then the author was still alive in 1622 -- six years after the death of the Stratford man. (Inconvenient to this theory is the preface to the 1622 Othello, which the publisher says he had to write himself, "the author being dead.")
Richard III was also published in quarto form in 1622. The First Folio version of the play contains 2,000 minor changes and 193 new lines, yet it also contains twelve printer's errors from the quarto, suggesting that whoever made the changes was working directly from the 1622 quarto. Again, Shakespeare of Stratford had been dead six years when the quarto came out.
Another provocative Derbyite argument is that an early, primitive German version of Hamlet was written by a young William Stanley while visiting Germany. Carl Nordling, studying the German play, finds many anglicisms and allusions to England, which, he feels, point to an English-speaking author working in an unfamiliar language. Conceivably, Derby wrote this play while traveling and later used it as the basis for the Hamlet we know. Not being literate in German, I'm in no position to assess this idea, but it is undeniably arresting.
As a candidate, then, Derby obviously has his strong points. He matches up well with the doubters' speculative portrait of Shakespeare the aristocratic artist (as opposed to Shakespeare the conniving businessman). And his life intersects with Shakespeare's in some important respects -- his involvement with Shakespeare's acting company, his likely presence at the Court of Navarre, his association with a possible model for Holofernes.
On the downside, however, no poems or plays have survived in his name, with one possible exception -- an untitled poem of less than Shakespearean quality, which may or may not be Stanley's work. And if he retired in 1613, he spent the last twenty-nine years of his life without writing anything -- a long period of inactivity for a writer, especially one of Shakespeare's abilities. The absence of post-1613 writings could be explained by the fact that Derby's ancestral home was sacked and burned shortly after his death, and any papers inside -- unproduced plays? unpublished poems? -- were lost forever.
It's possible. Still, the case for Derby is merely circumstantial. And this is true of all the alternative candidates, including others not mentioned because they strike me as too unsupported (Sir Edward Dyer) or too far-fetched (John Florio, Queen Elizabeth, King James, and many more).
In the end, both the orthodox view and the heresies fail to satisfy. The orthodox portrait of Shakespeare is so vague and self-contradictory that it ends up being little more than a blur. The doubters' alternative candidates all seem lacking for one crucial reason or another.
Both perspectives leave us with a Shakespeare who is too nebulous, too undefined, to be fully persuasive. And so the controversy will continue, with each side implacably sure of itself, and the truth, whatever it may be, as elusive as ever.