by Christina G. Waldman
July 5, 2023.
Something must be said about Elizabeth Winkler’s new book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies in which she sets out–one would assume–to accurately and fairly present the current status of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. This would be a worthy goal. However, although she, an American journalist, interviewed people who might colloquially be called “Stratfordians,” “Oxfordians” (three of them), a “Marlovian,” general Shakespeare authorship doubters, and at least one indifferent, she did not interview any currently researching and writing Baconians! With the internet, we are not that hard to find. Unfortunately, this omission may mislead readers unfamiliar with the topic into assuming no one believes Bacon may have written Shakespeare anymore, or that no one is currently researching the evidence. Perhaps she would like to visit SirBacon.org which has recently hosted “The A. Phoenix PDF Library of Works,” https://sirbacon.org/the-a-phoenix-pdf-library-of-works/.
Yes, Winkler interviewed Mark Rylance the Shakespearean actor, but he did not come across in her book as a “Baconian” per se, but rather as a general doubter and, perhaps, “the most prominent person championing the idea of female authorship today” (p. 279). Even James Shapiro in his 2010 book Contested Will (Simon & Schuster) pointed readers to two resources for further reading on the case for Bacon: SirBacon.org and the (now late) Irish humanist Brian McClinton’s book, The Shakespeare Conspiracies: A 400-Year Web of Myth and Deceit, 2d ed. (Belfast: Shanway Press, 2008) (Shapiro, p. 282). There are other books, of course, that could be mentioned, such as the late British barrister N. B. Cockburn’s The Bacon Shakespeare Question: The Baconian Question Made Sane (740 pp., 1998), Peter Dawkins, The Shakespeare Enigma (London: Polair Press, 2004), and my own, Francis Bacon’s Hidden Hand in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: A Study of Law, Rhetoric, and Authorship (New York: Algora Publishing, 2018).
It is interesting that Winkler and Shapiro’s publisher is Simon & Schuster, publisher for the Folger Shakespeare Library which has long held to a “Stratfordian” view, although they have stated: “we don’t really know what Shakespeare’s handwriting looks like.” (Folger Shakespeare Library Staff and Paul Werstine,“Shakespeare’s Handwriting: Hand D in The Booke of Sir Thomas More,” Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library, https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/resource/document/shakespeares-handwriting-hand-d-booke-sir-thomas-more, accessed July 7, 2023). Except, that may not be true, for the highly-respected forensic expert Maureen Ward-Gandy in her 1992 report determined, to a high degree of probability, that a play fragment found in binder’s waste in a 1586 copy of Homer’s Odyssey (It was a draft scene analogous to The First Part of Henry the Fourth) was in Francis Bacon’s own handwriting. It is printed in full for the first time in my book, and is also now available at SirBacon.org (Maureen Ward-Gandy, “Elizabethan Era Writing Comparison for Identification of Common Authorship,” Oct. 11, 2022, https://sirbacon.org/elizabeth-era-writing-comparison-for-identification-of-common-authorship/).
While Winkler mentions a 2019 book published by Routledge, Francis Bacon’s Contribution to Shakespeare), she leaves out the author’s name! It is Barry R. Clarke who has a Ph.D. in Shakespeare Studies from Brunel University. Nor does she mention Peter Dawkins’ recent book, Second-Seeing Shakespeare: Stay Passenger: “why goest thou by so fast?” (April 6, 2020, Kindle) or, if I am not mistaken, mention him by name. Instead, she refers to him (presumably) as “a Baconian researcher.” Dawkins is the founder/principal of the Francis Bacon Research Trust and its educational website. The Francis Bacon Society publishes videos on Youtube. The videos made by Jono Freeman are especially informative and entertaining. I wonder if Winkler has ever heard of them, or of my book? Through whose eyes is she seeing the authorship question?
There is other evidence of bias (Is it because he was born into a noble family? But his father, Sir Nicholas Bacon, was the son of a commoner.). She refers to the Northumberland Manuscript, an important piece of Baconian evidence because it bears the names of Bacon and Shakespeare together, as “a mass of “chaotic scribblings” (p. 163) (but see, e.g., “The Northumberland Manuscript: Bacon and Shakespeare Manuscripts in One Portfolio!” https://sirbacon.org/links/northumberland.html). She reported Oxfordian interpretations of the evidence, related by Oxfordians she interviewed, as if they were the only interpretations–unaware of, or considering there might be, other interpretations.
For example, she discusses Hall and Marston’s allusions to “Labeo” in their 16th century satires. There are several Labeos. Winkler knows of the poet Labeo, Labeo Attius (67-68), but not, apparently, of the great Roman jurist, Marcus Antistius Labeo, whose life parallels Bacon’s in notable ways (see my book, Francis Bacon’s Hidden Hand, pp. 99-100). The Latin words labefacio (to cause to shake, to totter) and labefacto (to shake violently) make an interesting association with the name, something Virgil and other writers of his time used to do. (See James J. O’Hara, True Names: Vergil and the Alexandrian Tradition of Etymological Wordplay (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2017 ). It seems Hall and Marson were on to this rhetorical device as well.
Arguably, any connection between Shakespeare and the law is one which points strongly to Francis Bacon, more than to any other “candidate” for Shakespeare authorship. Even Tom Regnier, the late “Oxfordian” researcher and a lawyer, has acknowledged the obvious, that Bacon’s legal accomplishments were much greater than Oxford’s (Thomas Regnier, “The Law in Hamlet: Death, Property, and the Pursuit of Justice (2011),” reprinted in Shakespeare and the Law: How the Bard’s Legal Knowledge Affects the Authorship Question, edited by Roger A. Strittmatter (June 2022), 231-251, 231. And no, Strittmatter did not make reference to my 2018 book, either.).
Bacon devoted much of his life to making lasting legal reforms to English law. He was a wise visionary humanitarian, arguably not the “stodgy old philosopher” Edward J. White saw him as, in trying to persuade readers that Bacon could not have been Shakespeare, ironically, while at the same time detailing an abundance of law found in Shakespeare, in his Commentaries on the Law in Shakespeare (St. Louis: F. H. Thomas, 2d ed. 1913), a book in which he was much assisted by a woman, Shakespeare lecturer, Mary A. Wadsworth, to whom he dedicated the book. Today she would probably be given co-authorial status.
Winkler also left important information out of her historical treatment. For example, in naming “Baconian” authors, she left out Constance Pott, founder of the Francis Bacon Society in 1866. Pott is the author of the first edition of Bacon’s writer’s notebook, the Promus, with all of its Shakespeare parallels. Did she mention Baconiana, the journal of the Francis Bacon Society (FBS) which has published the literary and historical research of its members since 1866? It can be accessed from the FBS website or SirBacon.org. A bibliography would have helped this book. SirBacon.org provides lengthy bibliographies of Baconian scholarship. She left out so many good writers. “It is hard to remember all, ungrateful to pass by any.” –Francis Bacon.
Arguably, if you only look where the light is shining, you won’t see what is hidden in the dark. Bacon was not just any nobleman penning poetry and plays. If the reason for the secrecy is because it was Bacon and we don’t look into the matter deeply enough, we will never solve the mystery. I am not saying Bacon was the only writer, but it is illogical to assume this stellar writer, a major literary figure in his time, did not play a role. The word “author” can be used in a broader sense for the person in charge of a large-scale literary project. Abbess Herrad of Hohenbourg referred herself as the “author” of the Hortus Deliciarum, a twelfth century encyclopedic work she compiled for the edification of the nuns at her convent, although she herself wrote relatively little of it (see Fiona J. Griffiths, The Garden of Delights: Reform and Renaissance for Women in the Twelfth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).
In truth, there is no logical, factual reason that would make Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare a factual impossibility. The two reasons that are usually given do not hold up under close scrutiny. Contrary to what is often said, for much of his life, Bacon did have the time to write plays and poems (and he had his “good pens” to help him). It was only after his cousin Robert Cecil died, during the reign of King James, that he was burdened with public office. Moreover, it is not fair to compare a person’s prose works with their poetry. Of course, there will be a difference in style! A person varies his/her/their writing style depending on what they are writing. One would especially expect this of a skilled writer, which Bacon was. James Shapiro observed in Contested Will that the only genre of writing at which Bacon did not try his hand was play-writing (p. 90). Isn’t that interesting. James Spedding, Bacon’s nineteenth century biographer and editor, observed that Bacon had the “fine phrensy of a poet,” intriguingly using Shakespeare’s phrase (see OpenSourceShakespeare.org).
Not all Baconians think alike. I can speak only for myself. The truth does not have a label or denomination, to make a religious analogy. But all who are researching need to keep an open mind. It is the facts that matter. In fact, it was Bacon who helped develop the modern meaning of what a valid fact is (See abstract, Barbara Shapiro, A Culture of Fact: England, 1550‒1720 (Cornell University Press). He wrote about the “four idols” that keep us from seeing things as they really are in his New Organon. Jesus spoke of such things as “motes” in our eyes. Bacon called them eidola from the Greek (hence informing his use of the word “idol”).
If people do not look into the case for Bacon deeply enough, I fear they risk trying to solve a puzzle that has missing pieces. This is a scholarly subject. It is unfortunate that a journalist, by not interviewing Baconians and giving their case equal time, did not present the Shakespeare authorship controversy as it stands today fairly and accurately. The Baconians were the first to challenge William Shaxpere of Stratford’s authorship. Many of the arguments of the Oxfordians are derivative of those first posited by Baconians (e.g., So Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was a ward of Lord Burghley? So was Francis Bacon, after his father died in 1579. In fact, Burghley was Bacon’s uncle (Added 7-8-23: Burghley’s wife Mildred was the sister of Francis’s mother, Anne Bacon. All the daughters of Sir Anthony Cooke (tutor to Edward VI) had received a rigorous classical education from their father. Anne, a true scholar, translated Bishop John Jewel’s Apology for the Church of England (anonymously). She made sure her sons, too, received a rigorous classical education, even before they entered Cambridge.).
Critical thinking is imperative. If readers do not have sufficient background in the history of a topic such as this, they risk being misled. If you are looking for something that has been intentionally buried, you have to dig deep.
Granted, Winkler’s undertaking in this book was ambitious, and the goal of publicizing the aberrant “wall” against challenging the authorship of Shakespeare is worthy. The book seems to have touched a chord and to be have been well-received, generally, for the most part (by non-“Stratfordians,” at least). However, the reading public trusts those who write books to objectively give them the whole story; or at least refer them to other sources where they might find it, because no one writer or one book can do it all. Perhaps Winkler will agree with me that, the more we learn about this topic, the more we realize how much more there is to learn. However, getting better acquainted with all of Francis Bacon’s works is well worth the effort, in my opinion.
(First posted July 5, 2023. Slightly revised July 7, 2023; references added.)