"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 29, 2015

The First Great Shakespeare Skeptic

Practically all of us have our pet crotchets and theories. Usually, they remain nothing more than a hobby that keeps us entertained, even if it often bores those around us. Sometimes, however, they can take over our lives to the point where they become obsessions--even disturbing obsessions.

Once in a while, they can drive someone mad.

One of these thankfully rare examples of a person allowing a theory to gain control over them was Delia Bacon. Bacon was born in rural Ohio in 1811. Her father, an impoverished Congregationalist minister, relocated his family to Hartford, Connecticut before his death in 1817. Despite her family's lack of money, Delia received a good education in a private school run by Henry Ward Beecher's sister Catherine. (Miss Beecher recorded that she was impressed by her pupil's "fervid imagination" and "rare gifts of eloquence.") After she left school at the age of 14, Miss Bacon and an older sister made several efforts to start schools of their own, but without success.

In any case, Bacon's real dream was to become a professional writer. In 1831, she published a collection of short stories, "Tales of the Puritans," and the following year her story "Love's Martyr" won a writing contest sponsored by the Philadelphia "Saturday Courier." The judges praised her work for its "taste, genius, and feeling." Among the runners-up for the first prize was a then-unknown Baltimore writer named Edgar Allan Poe. (She later turned the story into a verse play, "The Bride of Fort Edward." Although Poe himself described it as containing "some richly imaginative thoughts, skillfully expressed," it did not find favor with the public.) Bacon also launched a career as a lecturer, speaking about literature and world history. The attractive, knowledgeable young woman's talks proved both critically and commercially popular. An admirer described her as "graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvelously wise, and full of inspiration, she looked and spoke the very muse of history."

Unfortunately, Bacon's personal life was not going as well as her increasingly promising professional career. She became romantically entangled with a Reverend Alexander MacWhorter. This relationship--apparently her first and last love affair--ended badly. She appears to have convinced herself that the young man--who was more than ten years her junior--would marry her, an idea he rejected incredulously. Delia's brother Leonard, outraged by the gossip his sister was attracting, had MacWhorter brought before his church on charges of "calumny, falsehood, and disgraceful conduct, as a man, a Christian, and especially as a candidate for the Christian ministry." At the resulting ecclesiastical trial, MacWhorter narrowly avoided being unfrocked. It did not help matters any when Bacon's friend Catherine Beecher, seeking to defend her, published "Truth Stranger Than Fiction," a thinly-disguised novel based on the scandal. Instead of helping Delia's cause, the book only drew additional attention to her unhappy love life. Bacon, deeply humiliated by the entire episode, disgustedly swore off men altogether.

It was perhaps this general sense of disillusionment that led her, at about this time, to develop a radical notion that would eventually consume her entire life. Her studies of literature gradually led her to entertain the idea--one that was at the time unprecedented heresy--that William Shakespeare was not--could not be!-- the author of the writings which bear his name. If he was the author, she mused, where are his original manuscripts? Why do we know so very little about him? Where did he get the erudition contained in these plays? Could such deeply philosophical works have been intended as mere popular stage fodder for the "unlettered masses?" The more she contemplated this startling notion, the more she succeeded in convincing herself that it was the truth. The man credited with writing some of the most renowned literature in history was, she decided, nothing but "a vulgar, illiterate...deerpoacher." His name, she argued, was used as a front for an underground group of Elizabethan geniuses, headed by Sir Francis Bacon, who really wrote the "Shakespeare" plays to promote their dangerously radical philosophies. She described Sir Francis and his supposed "collaborators" as a "little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organize popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise.. .Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another. Driven from the open field, they fought in secret." The idea that the lowly, illiterate Shakespeare , "the Stratford poacher," wrote these transcendent works was, she proclaimed, "this great myth of the modern ages." "What infirmity of blindness is it, then, that we charge upon this 'god of our idolatry!' And what new race of Calibans are we, that we should be called upon to worship this monstrous incongruity--this Trinculo--this impersonated moral worthlessness?"

Although most of Bacon's family and friends scoffed at her new obsession, she managed to convince Ralph Waldo Emerson that she was on to something. An amateur Shakespeare scholar himself, Emerson reflected that what we know of Shakespeare depicts him as "a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast." Emerson was so impressed with Miss Bacon and her novel thesis that he supplied her with letters of introduction to aid her in going to England to pursue her research. She made the journey to Shakespeare Country in 1853.

Delia Bacon had landed the chance of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by her own increasingly frail emotional stability. English contacts such as Thomas Carlyle, (who "shrieked" when he first heard her theory,) soon decided that she was less of a serious scholar and more of a deluded eccentric. Probably out of a subconscious fear of proving herself wrong, Bacon rejected the idea of authentic historical research, relying instead on her "intuition." Her proof, she asserted, did not come from dry historical archives, but from the internal evidence found in the plays themselves. Comforting as such daydreams may have been for her, it soon alienated her backers completely. Even Emerson, discouraged by her reluctance to find hard evidence for her beliefs, dropped her, although he remained intrigued by her insights.

Bacon was left stranded in England, friendless and penniless. She was undeterred. She holed herself up in the dingy little room she was renting in the home of a shoemaker and frantically worked on a book about the fraudulent Shakespeare, "the stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor."  She knew her work would eventually vindicate her and make all her present sufferings worthwhile. It was "too gross to be endured" that anyone would think this man had written these plays.

Instead, her combination of poverty and overwork made her dangerously ill. Her alarmed doctor wrote for help to the American consulate in Liverpool. He explained that this American lady was "in a very excited and unsatisfactory state, especially mentally." He feared that "she will become decidedly insane."

The consul--who happened to be another author from New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne--did what he could for his distressed countrywoman, and under the care he authorized, Bacon recovered enough to complete her magnum opus, which she titled "The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded." Hawthorne read her manuscript, and while he remained unconvinced of her theory, he thought enough of it to agree that it deserved to be made public. He penned a forward to the work and found an English publisher, Groombridge and Sons, that was willing to take it on. (Unbeknownst to Bacon, Hawthorne secretly promised the publishers that he would cover any losses on the book. This act of literary generosity wound up costing him £238.)

By this point, Bacon had become fixated on the idea of opening Shakespeare's grave. She asserted that she "knew" that tangible proof of her theory had been entombed with the impostor. She argued this case so forcefully that the vicar of the church where Shakespeare lay expressed himself as willing to grant her request. Again, her inner lack of self-confidence caused her to back down. Hawthorne later wrote, not unsympathetically, that "A doubt stole into her mind whether she might not have mistaken the depository and mode of concealment of those historic treasures. And after once admitting the doubt, she was afraid to hazard the shock of uplifting the stone and finding nothing. She examined the surface of the gravestone, and endeavored, without stirring it, to estimate whether it were of such thickness as to be capable of containing the archives of the Elizabethan club. She went over anew the proofs, the clues, the enigmas, the pregnant sentences, which she had discovered in Bacon's letters and elsewhere, and now was frightened to perceive that they did not point so definitely to Shakespeare's tomb as she had heretofore supposed." Her secret uncertainties over what had become her life's work--and a work so at variance with her Puritan upbringing--were literally driving her crazy. Her family back in Hartford, deeply concerned about her, implored her to come home, but she refused. "I can not come," she wrote flatly. She was too frightened to seek proof of her theory, but she was too frightened to let it go, either.

Her "Shakespeare Unfolded" came out in April of 1857. In nearly 700 pages of rambling, confusing, virtually unreadable prose, Bacon laid out her belief that the historical William Shakespeare could not have had the broad education displayed in "his" plays. The knowledge of law, court life, and foreign lands shown in these works, were, she declared, indubitably beyond the man whom she dismissed as "Lord Leicester's stableboy." Her cherished book was, sadly, an utter flop. When it was noticed at all, it was resoundingly mocked.

Having one's most cherished beliefs publicly scorned would be hard on anyone. For someone as fragile as Delia Bacon, it proved virtually fatal. Failure left her so mentally and emotionally shattered that she was placed in an asylum in a village outside Stratford. In 1858, a nephew brought her back to Hartford. At the time of her death only a year later, she had never fully recovered her reason. A brother recorded that she died "thankful to escape from tribulation and enter into rest."

She would have died much happier if she had known that her skepticism about the Bard of Avon would, in the years after her death, gain a remarkable popularity. Her writings gained such illustrious adherents as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, and Henry James. Although the "Baconian theory" itself is now largely out of vogue, the whole "Shakespeare authorship" debate is still alive and well.

Modern-day literary critic James Shapiro has asserted, "Had she limited her argument to these points ["collaborative authorship" of the plays] instead of conjoining it to an argument about how Shakespeare couldn't have written them, there is little doubt that, instead of being dismissed as a crank and a madwoman, she would be hailed today as the precursor of the New Historicists, and the first to argue that the plays anticipated the political upheavals England experienced in the mid-seventeenth century."

In other words, it could be argued that Delia Bacon was not an absurd fantasist, but a visionary scholar who tragically took a wrong path.


  1. It's a sad tale - worthy of a Shakespeare tragedy, really. There was nothing wrong with trying to find internal evidence for her theory in the plays - Elizabethans and Jacobeans were fond of game-like 'devices' - but they would always remain nothing more than clues. She needed evidence and though she was not a scholar, she was visionary. If she had put more research into her theory - and more courage into her research - she may not have been proved right, but she may have been respected enough to save her sanity.

  2. This was very interesting. When I was an undergraduate so many years ago I took a year long course in Shakespeare's plays and another year long course in the Intellectual History of the Renaissance. In my opinion, I do believe that Shakespeare alone could be the author of his poetry and plays. Education was not as elementary as Miss Bacon imagined it would be. First, Shakespeare's family had to PAY for it. It was not free. They wanted him to do better in life. He learned Rhetoric, Maths, Geometry, Latin, Geography, etc.
    (these were the Liberal Arts). University would have been more of the same along with Philosophy and Greek. He did not attend University. Most people did not, actually, just clergy, lawyers, etc. I hope I have dispelled some of the shadows from that time in history for you.

    1. This response is interesting in itself. The term 'renaissance man' didn't come about due to living in the era but in being characteristic of it. When people learned then, they learned a lot.

    2. So-called "Dame Schools", which came later, were only for the so-called 3-R's, the very basics of running a business. Generally people still had to seek out scriveners, scribes, etc. for their services. To go to school was a really big thing. It is too bad that She did not know that. I still remember reading Pepys while I was an undergraduate and his statements of grief surrounding the death of his 7 year-old son who used to converse with him in Latin in the evening.

  3. But have you read "Man v' Ape in the play of Ear-Ce-Rammed"?


    1. I had never heard of it until I saw your comment. Dang, but that looks like an unheralded classic.


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