Was Shakespeare A Phony?

One conspiracy meme that has propagated over the past few centuries (and has gained ground more recently) is the belief that William Shakespeare is a fraud – that is, the British poet and playwright is laying claim to someone else’s work. This Shakespearean conspiracy theory has propagated its believability through the simple facts of how little we know about one of the greatest writers of all time. In explaining the significance of memetics, Blackmore writes, “…human life is permeated through and through with memes and their consequences. Everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme” (p.6). In other words, any belief and its resulting consequence are passed on through the driving force that is a meme. Similarly, memes are selfish in that they “‘want’ to propagate themselves… [and] successful memes are the ones that get copied and spread, while unsuccessful ones do not” (Blackmore 7). The successfulness of the Shakespearean conspiracy meme can be attributed to the lack of evidence against the belief that Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the works attributed to him. This post seeks to evaluate the Shakespearean conspiracy meme by looking at the various mechanisms that have allowed for this meme to be passed on. 

The Francis-Bacon Research Trust is a group of conspirators who believe that the plays and sonnets were written by an affluent philosopher and academic by the name of Francis Bacon. This Research Trust publishes essays, articles, and hosts events about the Shakespearean authorship debate. One essay makes the case that Francis Bacon, a well-known British philosopher of the time, used the name Shakespeare as a pseudonym. In his essay backing this “Baconian Theory”, Peter Dawkins seeks to propagate this meme that Francis Bacon is the author of Shakespeare’s plays, pointing to the works of Shakespeare that imply things about the writer (his education, his affluence, his background, etc.) that match up with the biographical history of Bacon not William Shakespeare. This Bacon-meme can be considered a sect within the greater meme of Shakespearean authorship conspiracy. Thus, the Francis Bacon theory is really a meme within a meme. Blackmore describes this as a memeplex, writing “The essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own” (p. 20). This specificity may attribute to the successfulness of the Bacon-Theory meme. As a result of their beliefs, these authors seek to give credit where credit is do – that Francis Bacon should be revered as one of the most influential playwrights and poets of all time. Peter Dawkins, the author of the article and head of the Research Trust, is an author and consultant on the wisdom of Shakespeare. His brief biography can be found here.

Shakespeare-Gerard-Soest-Portrait-1660s

Was Shakespeare (pictured above) a phony? (Here is an article about the photo painted by Gerard Soest)

While Dawkins argues for Francis Bacon as the author of the works of Shakespeare, The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition is a group of academics and doubters-alike who seek to propagate the Shakespearean conspiracy meme in a more general approach, allowing for all sides to present their arguments on a fair, unbiased, academic platform. This propagation of the Shakespearean meme would be a strategy that Goertzel describes as “The Fair Debate Meme”. Goertzel writes, “Dissenters from mainstream science often invoke the [fair debate] meme that there are two sides to every question and each side is entitled to equal time to present its case” (p. 4). Again it seems that a meme, The Fair Debate meme, is being used as a way of increasing the validity of the Shakespearean conspiracy theory (another meme within a meme!). This lends a hand to Blackmore’s argument that memes are selfish in the sense that they will do anything to be passed on (p. 7). The purpose of this coalition is merely to evoke awareness about the ideas and evidence behind the belief that William Shakespeare was not the author of his named works. The site has a very interesting section entitled “past doubters”, where it provides quotes and evidence of many past academics and people of fame who too have doubted Shakespearean authorship. This technique is somewhat characteristic of the paranoid style described by Richard Hofstadter in that “it is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant” (p. 1). The site also claims that 2,805 “verified” users (478 being academics) have signed The Document of Reasonable Doubt on their website – a declaration of considerable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare. 

Lastly, a website by the name of “No Sweat Shakespeare” posted an article entitled, “The Shakespeare Conspiracy”. It is very interesting to note that the author is himself describing this debate as a conspiracy. Goertzel describes a conspiracy as a word that “usually implies something that is secret and hidden” (p. 2). This article also employs the “Fair Debate Meme” as it provides two-sides, where the author presents the arguments for and against Shakespeare being the author. I do believe the Shakespearean conspiracy meme benefits from this fair debate technique because it tends to evoke doubt in the mind of reader – something that helps the meme pass on. Blackmore explains that many “…aspects of human nature are explained far better by a theory of memetics than by any rival theory yet available. The theory starts only with one simple mechanism – the competition between memes to get into human brains and be passed on again” (p. 9). It is through this evoking of doubt that a meme like Shakespearean conspiracy can really latch on and continue to be successful. The website this article was posted on is a resource for anything and everything Shakespeare (study guides, quotes, sonnets, plays etc.). It is also interesting to note that the “Shakespearean Conspiracy Theory” article has been shared over 4,000 times by various bloggers.  This validates Blackmore’s belief that memes can now be more readily available for selection due to the evolution of the Internet (p. 9). While the conspiracy article doesn’t directly credit an author, the site is run and maintained by Shakespeare enthusiast John King and his son, Warren. A more detailed biography of the Kings and their academic backgrounds can be found here.

AN ASIDE: A movie entitled Anonymous (2011) was made in light of these Shakespearean authorship debates. The Trailer can be found below:

Works Cited

Susan Blackmore (1999). The Meme Machine. London: Oxford University Press.

Ted Goertzel (2011) “The conspiracy meme,” Skeptical Inquirer, 35(1).

Richard Hofstadter (1964) “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November.

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