Did William Shakespeare Actually Exist?

Published April 23, 2016
Updated February 10, 2017
Was Shakespeare Real

The proposed candidates for the true authors of William Shakespeare’s work (clockwise from top left): Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, and Edward de Vere. Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare died 400 years ago today — if he even existed.

There’s an entire field of a study dedicated to the various conspiracy theories regarding Shakespeare’s “true” identity.

Here’s what you need to know.

Starting in the 19th century, a growing movement starting asking: Was Shakespeare real?

Shakespeare’s biography claims that he was born in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon where he married at 18, eventually leaving his family behind to pursue a career as an actor in London.

These humble beginnings and lack of formal education seem incompatible with the writer’s intimate knowledge of courtly procedure, convincing some scholars that the true author must have been a nobleman.

Anti-Stratfordians, as they are known, also point to the mysterious lack of personal information, letters, or original manuscripts as further evidence that his identity was deliberately covered up.

In fact, his name itself is the basis of much of controversy surrounding the authenticity of his authorship.

His signature is hotly contested by anti-Stratfordians, who point out that in the surviving six authenticated signatures, his name is spelled differently in each one.

His name is also hyphenated on many of the title pages of his collections and plays, leading many anti-Stratfordians to believe that Shakespeare was a pseudonym for the real author. Their argument is that in plays, often times fictional names were hyphenated.

Francis Bacon, the philosopher who served as both Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of London, is often cited as the mostly likely alternative author, but other candidates have proposed: two earls, Edward de Vere and William Stanely, and even Queen Elizabeth I.

The fact remains however that, “No one in Shakespeare’s lifetime or the first two hundred years after his death expressed the slightest doubt about his authorship,” Jonathan Bate wrote in the Genius of Shakespeare.


Next, read about the four most enduring conspiracy theories in history.

author
Elisabeth Sherman
author
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey. She holds a Master's in writing from Columbia University, and her work has appeared in Food & Wine, The Guardian, Yahoo, BBC, HuffPost, VICE, MSN, and Vulture.
editor
Savannah Cox
editor
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Sherman, Elisabeth. "Did William Shakespeare Actually Exist?." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 23, 2016, https://allthatsinteresting.com/was-shakespeare-real. Accessed May 25, 2024.