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Why is Mark Rylance convinced that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays?

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Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1817 Credit: GL Archive

Tim Smith-Laing reviews Francis Bacon’s Contribution to Shakespeare, by Barry R Clarke

Oh good, the Shakespeare Authorship Question is in the press again. If this is not quite an annual event, it is nevertheless depressingly regular, greeted by the sound of Shakespeare scholars banging their heads on their desks much as spring is hallooed by the cuckoo. Its latest efflorescence comes from Barry R Clarke, in a book shunted towards mainstream attention by an introduction from Sir Mark Rylance, the Oscar-winning Shakespeare sceptic. 

If it were not central to the marketing of Bacon’s Contribution, it would be tempting to skate over Rylance’s introduction altogether. It is in large part a settling of scores with the “fearmongering” Shakespeare establishment and “its supporters in the media and academy” who have closed their minds to the SAQ. Such narrow orthodoxy is unwise, Rylance notes, because there is “nothing but the attribution of the First Folio to prove that [Shakespeare] could write at all”. 

If we accept this (which we should not, since it is not true) we must ask who did in fact write “Shakespeare”. Rylance floats between the old suggestions of Christopher Marlowe (who died before most of the plays were written), Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (who died before 12 of them were written), and sundry others, while lending greatest support to Francis Bacon (who was at least alive throughout). 

Rylance himself was first pointed to Bacon as a candidate by the august-sounding Francis Bacon Research Trust: a home-grown affair helmed by an architect, his feng shui consultant wife, and a select crew of fellow amateurs much interested in the Masonic mysteries and Rosicrucianism. Suggest at your peril that the total lack of evidence or contemporary testimony might make Bacon and company less likely candidates than Shakespeare himself. “Conspiracies of silence have existed”, Rylance notes, and Shakespeare’s authorship “may be the greatest conspiracy of them all.” 

It might be unfair to judge Bacon’s Contribution – clearly meant as a scholarly intervention, albeit in a largely imaginary debate – by its introduction. But this is the company Clarke has chosen to keep, and it makes his demands for a fair hearing from “orthodox researchers” ring rather hollow. Clarke is, though, like many SAQ researchers, anxious to be taken seriously; and, since much about Bacon’s Contribution might seem to corroborate that for general readers, it is worth examining just how seriously he should be taken. 

William Shakespeare Credit: Hulton Archive

Clarke, whose day job is as a setter of logic puzzles for various outlets including this paper, has a background in physics but also a doctorate in Shakespeare studies. This latter, taken at Brunel with support from the august-sounding Francis Bacon Society, bears the stamp of authority, does it not? Specialists might demur, on the basis that Brunel is the only British university that actively encourages work on the SAQ, while the FBS, in addition to encouraging work on Bacon generally, maintains a special interest in his activities as a "concealed poet". 

Still, Bacon’s Contribution is a more serious work than the average Shakespearean conspiracy treatise. Buttressed with appendices and numerical evidence, it is dense, technical and keen to distance itself from the battiest theories. While Clarke takes it as axiomatic that Shakespeare did not write the plays assigned to him in the First Folio, he rejects all other single-author theories as specious too, opting instead for a “many hands” hypothesis. 

In this, Shakespeare becomes “an opportunist businessman” who “bought plays from other dramatists which he passed off as his own”. Why everyone should have gone along with this is unclear, but among the ripped-off dramatists Clarke counts Bacon, whose involvement he tries to demonstrate by a stylometric procedure of his own invention. 

The many hands hypothesis is, admittedly, about as close as SAQ writings come to reflecting actual scholarship. For, though it is a tenet of SAQ theorists that Shakespeareans never question the authoring of the plays, they certainly do. Rather like in modern film, collaboration and adaptation were frequent in early modern play-writing. Shakespeare worked with others at the end of his career – most notably with John Fletcher on Henry VIII (or All is True), Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio – and evidence suggests he did so earlier too. 

Similarly, the journey of plays into print was rare and tortuous (one reason only around a fifth of early modern plays survive). Unlike the posterity-obsessed Ben Jonson, Shakespeare apparently had little interest in printing his plays (presumably as it was not much of a financial proposition), and though some appeared during his life, the First Folio was a posthumous affair led by his former colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell. 

Rather than appealing to the authority of what Clarke calls (with no evidential basis) the “Fraudulent First Folio”, Shakespeare’s editors have since the mid-18th century been asking questions about the many hands involved in his texts.

Clarke, while offering an appearance of similar reasoning, relies on the assumption that none of the accepted witnesses to Shakespeare’s authorship can be trusted. Accordingly, a large chunk of his book is dedicated to reading the evidence of Shakespeare’s status as a well-known writer against its own plain meaning. 

Particularly enjoyable here is the attention he gives to the Parnassus university plays of 1598-1602, in which a foolish character, Gullio, spouts Shakespeare’s verses as a chat-up line. Recognising the theft, and with it Shakespeare’s status, another character tartly remarks, “We shall have nothinge but Shakespeare and shreds of poetrie that he hath gathered at the theators”. Clarke, though, asks us to imagine that Gullio represents Shakespeare, and thus that the play portrays Shakespeare as thieving from “Shakespeare”. This is far from “abundantly clear”, especially given Gullio’s explicit namechecking of Shakespeare as his idol. 

Clarke is on steadier ground in arguing that Bacon was, among his many activities, vaguely interested in drama, but the linkages between him and the Shakespeare canon are as slender as a tightrope across a mountain gorge. This, though, is where the science comes in, with Clarke using his invention, “Rare Collocation Profiling”, for much-needed structural support. RCP aims to match texts and authors through the shared appearance of rare phrases, as measured via EEBO, an online database of printed books from the period. 

The legion problems with this come down to two fundamentals: the coverage of EEBO, which, while amounting to thousands of texts, remains minimal compared to the linguistic universe in which Shakespeare and Bacon moved; and Clarke’s own ability to decide what a significant return is, which also seems minimal. Take, for instance, RCP’s highlighting of the collocation of time and hand as “unique” to The Comedy of Errors (1594) and Heywood’s Iron Age (1632). Presumably Shakespeare’s own Sonnet 64 (“When I see by time’s fell hand defac’d”) was not among the 3,340 texts searched by Clarke. As for the extreme rarity of the Latin phrase diliculo surgere (rise early) shared by Twelfth Night and a Bacon manuscript, the fact that that manuscript is a list of commonplace phrases and proverbs should provide a hint that the phrase is not so rare after all. Whatever Clarke claims, the dream of a literary “DNA-profile” has not found its incarnation in RCP. 

In the end, despite all the tables and the scientistic baggage, Bacon’s Contribution does not stand up to much scrutiny. There may, in the most restricted elements of Clarke’s claims, be bits of meat, but little worth the chewing. There is, I would bet, more Bacon in the average kosher kitchen than in the works of Shakespeare.