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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Miss Bacon’s Theory of the Shakespearian Plays

By Theodore Bacon (1834–1900)

[Born in New Haven, Conn., 1834. Died in Rochester, N. Y., 1900. Delia Bacon: a Biographical Sketch. 1888.]

STUDYING and teaching for many years not merely the history of events, but the history and criticism of literature, it is not strange that the strongly English mind of this New England woman became gradually fixed upon the greatest work of English letters, the drama of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. So complete, indeed, was the spell of fascination under which she fell in the study especially of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare, that after the beginning of 1853 she could no longer endure the burden of her historical lessons, in which she seemed to have achieved a permanent success, sure to bring her, if only she should continue them, prosperity and credit.

To whom it first occurred to doubt the title of William Shakespeare to the authorship of the plays commonly bearing his name is a question which will not be much discussed in this sketch….

Many readers, indeed, from the time when criticism began a century and a half ago, found themselves confronted with difficulties elsewhere unknown. The personality of this dramatist glowed through his work with a force and brightness found nowhere else in literature. It seemed, indeed, a multiplied personality. There was in it not only marvellous insight, but exquisite cultivation and refinement, profound learning, and a practical knowledge of men, of the world, and of affairs such as all men were apt to say had never before been joined in any one man. When Coleridge called him the “myriad-minded,” he simply put into a felicitous phrase what all men had long been thinking. Many, indeed, had declared their wonder that any one mind could produce creations so diverse in character as “Julius Cæsar” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” as “The Comedy of Errors” and “Macbeth.” In general, however, a single student would content himself with a demonstration which, alone, might have served to solve the difficulty found by every one, but which, when involved with like demonstrations by others, only multiplied perplexity. To prove from the plays that their author must have been a lawyer, as Lord Campbell did, was far from difficult, and would have been very helpful if the demonstration had stood alone. True, there was no historical record of Shakespeare’s ever having seen a law-book, a court-room, or a lawyer’s chambers; and there was some trouble in imagining how the play-actor and theatre-manager, who was writing immortal dramas before he was thirty, and died, after voluminous authorship, at fifty-two, could have acquired what Lord Campbell calls “the familiar, profound, and accurate knowledge he displayed of juridical principles and practice.” It was only making a wonder more wonderful, however; and the new wonder was established by demonstration, and by the authority of a great lawyer’s name. But when the eminent Dr. Bucknill, not controverting the argument of Lord Campbell, proved as clearly that Shakespeare “had paid an amount of attention to subjects of medical interest scarcely if at all inferior to that which has served as the basis“ of the proposition that he “had devoted seven good years of his life to the practice of law,” he hindered rather than helped to understand the real life of the dramatist. So when another proves that in the few years before the playwriting began the poet, so well versed was he in warfare, must have served a campaign or two in the Low Countries; another, that he must have been a Roman Catholic in religion, while another shows him to have been necessarily a Puritan; another, that his prodigious wealth of allusions to and phrases from the then untranslated Greek and Latin authors proves his broad and deep erudition; the understanding consents to one demonstration after another, but may possibly be staggered if called to accept them all together. It might well be that weak souls, invited to believe so much of one man, sought refuge and repose in refusing to believe even what would not otherwise have overtaxed credulity.

There were other things, besides, that had seemed strange in the relations of this man to these plays. No word or hint seems ever to have escaped him to show that he cared for, or even owned, the miraculous offspring which had fallen from him. There is no word or syllable in all the world to indicate that the man whose multifarious learning is the wonder of the third century after him ever owned a book, or ever saw one, although he brought together and left behind him a fair estate. Nor is there to be found in all the world of this profuse and voluminous author, of this bosom-friend of poets and printers and actors, so much as the scratch of a pen on paper, except the three signatures upon his Will, wherein, by an interlineation which shows that he had at first overlooked the wife of his boyhood, he leaves her his “second-best bed.” Yet of his less famous contemporaries there are autograph manuscripts in abundance. Even of his forerunners by centuries there are extant writings infinitely more plenty than the scanty subscriptions to a legal instrument. Petrarch died two centuries and a half, Dante three centuries, before him; yet the manuscripts of both abound, while of him who was greater than either, and was almost of our own time, there is nothing but the mean and sordid Will to show that he ever put pen to paper.

But while the difficulty of fixing the canon of the Shakespeare text had long been such as to involve the authorship of every part of the text in more or less doubt; while all men had wondered that so little should be known of the actual man Shakespeare, and that what little was known should be so far remote from any ideal one could form of the author bearing the name: so that Coleridge should exclaim: “Are we to have miracles in sport? Does God choose idiots by whom to convey divine truths to men?” and Emerson: “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”; yet avowed disbelief went commonly no further. Once, it is true, there was a public assertion that Shakespeare’s alleged authorship was impossible. In 1848 there was published by the Harpers, in New York, a light and chatty account of a voyage to Spain, entitled “The Romance of Yachting,” by Joseph C. Hart. The incidents of the voyage are interspersed with discussions altogether foreign to it; and upon a trivial pretext the authorship of the plays is considered, with no small acuteness and vigor, upon the pages from 208 to 243. It is summarized, however, in a few of the earlier sentences: “He was not the mate of the literary characters of the day, and none knew it better than himself. It is a fraud upon the world to thrust his surreptitious fame upon us. He had none that was worthy of being transmitted. The inquiry will be, who were the able literary men who wrote the dramas imputed to him? The plays themselves, or rather a small portion of them, will live as long as English literature is regarded worth pursuit. The authorship of the plays is no otherwise material to us than as a matter of curiosity, and to enable us to render exact justice; but they should not be assigned to Shakespeare alone, if at all.”

If there be any merit, therefore, in having been the first to doubt this authorship, it cannot be awarded to Delia Bacon. There is no reason, however, to believe that the speculations which have just been quoted ever came to her knowledge. The ideas, or fancies, which soon after this possessed her, were, as she profoundly believed, her own discovery—indeed, she would rather have said, a revelation direct, to her.

Revelation, discovery, or fancy, however,—whatever it was, an utterly subordinate part of it all, though an essential part, was that which concerned merely the authorship of the plays. If they were indeed, as they had been commonly received, a casual collection of stage-plays, knocked together by a money-making play-actor, playwright, and theatre-manager for the money there was in them and to be got out of them, it was a trivial question by what name the playwright should be called; it should not tax credulity to “marry this fact to his verse,” however fine the verse might be, if they were nothing more than verse. But to her, studying the plays with a keenness of natural insight and a burning intensity which have not often been applied to them, much more than splendid poesy began to gleam within them. Finding in them a higher philosophy, even, than in the “Advancement of Learning,” a broader statesmanship, a profounder jurisprudence, and, above all, a bolder courage than in all the avowed writings of the great Chancellor, she only obeyed the teachings of that Inductive System which he had expounded, in seeking an adequate authorship for so magnificent a creation. But that all these things were in the plays—this was the main fact that concerned her; this was what she cared to discover first for herself, and then to communicate to the world. If indeed she found them there, it could not but follow, as the night the day, that some better paternity must be admitted for the plays than that of Lord Leicester’s groom.

Nor was it enough for her to discover bits and gleams of philosophy and political science in the plays, however frequent or brilliant. To her eager inquiry they came to be revealed at last, not as fortuitously collected though mutually unrelated plays, but as an entire dramatic system, in which the New Philosophy was to be inculcated in unsuspicious minds, under the vehement despotism of the last Tudor and the dull pedantic oppression of the first Stuart. If the plays were really such a system of philosophic teaching, not only was it difficult to accept the competency for it of the Stratford poacher and London horse-boy; it was hardly less trying to credulity to impute so vast an enterprise, added to all the gigantic intellectual labors which he avowed, even to the greatest Englishman of his age. She judged, therefore, that as there had been collaboration before and since in literary work, so here the most brilliant and philosophic minds of the Elizabethan Court coöperated in the work which was too great for one, and consented together, for their common safety, to the imputation of their united work to the theatre-manager who brought out the plays, and whose property they were because they had been given to him.

Reasons why these courtiers and politicians—Bacon, Raleigh, Spenser, and whatever others made up the illustrious coterie—should not have wished to acknowledge the work of which they might well have boasted, were not far to seek. It comported ill with dignity of rank and place to be known as a writer of plays: but to be known to such a queen as Elizabeth, or to such a king as James, as author of such plays as “Coriolanus” or “Julius Cæsar”—the eager ambition of Bacon would have been quenched by it long before the day when his office was wanted for Williams; upon Raleigh, living for fifteen years under his unexecuted death sentence, the headsman’s axe would have fallen earlier than it did.

But while Delia Bacon thoroughly believed that such a worthy coterie, and not the unworthy player, produced the Elizabethan drama, and hid in it the philosophy which it would have been fatal to publish openly; and while she was no less sure that in some cryptic form there was truth involved in these works which was yet to be surrendered to faithful and intelligent study, it is scant justice to her memory to say, that, as the mere authorship of the plays was to her but a small part of the truth concerning them, so she never devoted herself to whims or fancies about capital letters, or irregular pagination, or acrostics, or anagrams, as concealing yet expressing the great philosophy which the plays enclosed. Her mind, it now appears, was already overwrought; before many months it gave way completely; but its unsoundness, whenever it may have begun, never assumed that form.