Top 10 Possible Authors For The Works of Shakespeare


Despite William Shakespeare’s status as a literary giant, a small but vocal group of scholars, playwrights, actors, and conspiracy theorists have long argued that he is not the true author of his plays. Even though the vast majority of Shakespeare scholars have rejected it, this theory has become increasingly prominent since the 1980s, and has even inspired an upcoming film called Anonymous. Adherents of the alternate author theory point to Shakespeare’s humble origins, lack of formal education, and the murkiness of his historical record as evidence that the Bard was incapable of the genius that can be found in his work. Not only that, but they frequently nominate candidates—some of them quite famous—as the true author. The following are ten of the most notable possible authors of the works of Shakespeare, along with explanations of why some think they might be the greatest writer you’ve never heard of.

10. Sir Fulke Greville

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A recent Shakespeare

candidate, Fulke Greville was an English noble and politician who also nurtured a talent for poetry and drama. He was the close friend and biographer of Sir Philip Sidney—one of the towering literary figures of his time—and spent a good portion of his life in court with Queen Elizabeth, for whom he served as a judge, a soldier, and even a spy.

Evidence for Authorship

The argument for Greville’s authorship is based around an obscure quote from his biography, which says that he wanted “to be known to posterity under no other notions than of Shakespeare’s master.” This strange statement caused scholars to begin seriously considering Greville as a candidate for being the “true author,” and the more he was researched the more evidence was uncovered. Greville was well known for his writing skill, and his position as a court spy had taken him all over Europe. This would have given him the knowledge and perspective to write Shakespeare’s foreign-set plays. His life also has eerie parallels with Shakespeare. Both men lived in Stratford on Avon—perhaps even on the same street—and both had many of the same friends and acquaintances. The biographical similarities are so striking, in fact, that many have come to argue that “Shakespeare” the historical figure was actually Fulke Greville, who used the name as a pseudonym in order to write plays while still maintaining his position as a noble.

 9. Emilia Lanier

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Several of the candidates proposed have been women, and of these the mysterious Emilia Lanier is one of the most famous. Born Emelia Bassano, she was married to a court musician, but spent several years as the mistress to the first cousin of Queen Elizabeth. Although the details of her life are incomplete, Lanier is remembered today for being one of the first professional female poets in England.

Evidence for Authorship

Lanier’s lover was a patron of the arts, so she would have been acquainted with the theater and possibly William Shakespeare himself. Originally, she was considered by many to be the inspiration for several of Shakespeare’s famous love poems, particularly the more risqué “Dark Lady” sonnets. This theory has recently been expanded to argue that Lanier is responsible for all of Shakespeare’s work, and that she used Shakespeare as a front to make it appear as though her plays were written by a man. Evidence includes specific and unusual clusters of words that seem to only appear in Lanier’s work and plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and certain plot points that exist in both Shakespeare plays and in Lanier’s book of poetry, Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum. In several cases, Lanier’s biography also lines up with content in Shakespeare’s plays, and different versions of her name are used as character names throughout the Shakespeare canon, which some claim she included as hints that she was the true author.

8. The Group Theory

Since the 1800s, a popular Shakespeare authorship theory has been that the plays were not the work of one writer but rather a syndicate of different playwrights with a concerted agenda. According to the theory, this group merely used the figure of William Shakespeare as a front for the release of its collective writings. (Shakespeare and his Friends at the Mermaid Tavern by John Faed.)

Evidence for Authorship

Analysis of Shakespeare’s work has often revealed a vast breadth of style and technique, which some argue is far too complex for the plays to only be the work of one man. A number of different group candidates have been proposed, including Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, and even Sir Walter Raleigh, all of whom have been put forth as possible leaders of the Shakespeare syndicate. One of the earliest group theory studies proposed that Bacon and Raleigh used Shakespeare’s work as a way to advance a particular political system in the popular culture. Proponents of the idea point out that in the Elizabethan era it was not unusual for plays and other forms of fiction to be co-written by multiple authors. For them, the amount of knowledge that the writer of Shakespeare’s plays held on everything from religion and science to court history and law is simply too sprawling to have come from the mind of one person.

7. Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland

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A noble who supposedly studied under Francis Bacon, Roger Manners was the 5th Earl of Rutland, a county in the English midlands. Manners was a patron of the arts who was renowned for his keen intellect. He attended both Oxford and Cambridge, travelled widely throughout Europe, and corresponded with many of the scholars and thinkers of the day.

Evidence for Authorship

Like many of the other candidates, Manners possessed the education, skill, and perspective to have written plays and poems of a very high quality. Even more interesting, the Earl, his wife Elizabeth Sidney, and a small group of friends were known to publish writings under various assumed and supposedly “common” names for their own amusement. Manners in particular was known to have been a prolific writer, but he only published under pseudonyms. This, along with the fact that Shakespeare’s writing ceased as soon as Manners and his wife died, have led many to argue that the two acted in concert to produce the plays and then published them anonymously.

6. William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby

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An English nobleman with a penchant for playwriting, William Stanley served as the 6th Earl of Derby from 1594 until his death in 1642. He is best known for the travels he undertook as a young man, which saw him spend time in France, Italy, Russia, Greenland, and Egypt.

Evidence for Authorship

The Early of Derby was first proposed as a Shakespeare authorship candidate in 1891, when an archivist uncovered letters from a Jesuit spy that described Stanley as being “busy penning plays for the common players.” According to most “Derbyite” theory, passages in plays like “Love’s Labour’s Lost” are too steeped in French and European history not to have been written by someone who was intimately familiar with the goings on of the court. The well-travelled Stanley can be placed in France and Italy around the time when these pivotal events took place, and his position as a noble would’ve meant he was privy to key events that may have inspired scenes in the plays of Shakespeare. Meanwhile, characters in other Shakespeare plays have been connected to certain real life acquaintances of William Stanley, among them the occultist John Dee, who many say is the inspiration for the character of Prospero in The Tempest. According to proponents of the Earl of Derby’s authorship, the real William Shakespeare was merely a front man through whom the plays were released. Stanley was the true author, but was unable to attach his name to his work out of fear that being a published, commercial writer would sully his reputation as a nobleman.

5. Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

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In the late 1500s and early 1600s, perhaps only Queen Elizabeth was a more educated and influential woman than Mary Sidney Herbert. Born into a powerful family, Herbert was a true renaissance woman. She was fluent in several languages and was an expert in medicine, law—even falconry.  Most of all, she was skilled at writing and translating plays and poetry. She is best known today for founding the Wilton Circle, an important literary group, and for being one of the first women in England to publish a play.

Evidence for Authorship

Mary Sidney Herbert is certainly the most popular female candidate. She had the background, intelligence, and desire to create writing on the level of Shakespeare, and her social position as a woman gave her a perfect motive: at the time, no lady would have been allowed to have her plays performed in the theater. Scholars agree that Shakespeare was aware of her work, and may have even used her The Tragedie of Antonie as a template for his play Antony and Cleopatra. With this in mind, many have argued that the notion that she wrote Shakespeare’s plays herself is not that far-fetched. Another crucial piece of evidence concerns Shakespeare’s famous love sonnets, some of which tell of an affair with a younger man who was himself seeing a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman. A similar story is documented in Mary Sidney’s personal life, which has led some to argue the sonnets are autobiographical. Scholars have long noted feminine touches and voice in the work of Shakespeare. Those who believe in Mary Sidney’s candidacy would say it was because the author was in fact a woman.

4. Sir Henry Neville

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Of the sixty-plus candidates for the “true author,” Sir Henry Neville is one of the newest and most popular additions. The nobleman and politician was educated at Oxford, traveled throughout Europe, and even served for some time as the English ambassador to France. While he was known to be a skilled writer and scholar, most of his professional life was spent as a member of parliament. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1601 for playing a minor role in a failed uprising against Queen Elizabeth, but was released when James I ascended to the throne.

Evidence for Authorship

Most if not all of the proposed alternate authors have biographies that dovetail with characters, settings, and story lines in Shakespeare plays. But it has been argued that Neville’s life lines up almost perfectly. Neville can be placed in the setting of many Shakespeare plays around the time they were written, and he had the knowledge of the languages and the law that would have been needed to write in the kind of detail that is exhibited in the plays. Examinations of his writing style have found remarkable similarities with Shakespeare, and a document bearing Neville’s seal has been found on which the signature “William Shakespeare” is written several times, as though someone were practicing it. While scholars have often been puzzled why Shakespeare’s work suddenly became darker and more tragic in the early 1600s, proponents of Neville’s authorship argue it was because of Neville’s depression at having been imprisoned and stripped of his wealth and political standing.

3. Christopher Marlowe

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In the Elizabethan era, playwright Christopher Marlowe was second only to William Shakespeare in fame—but many claim that he actually composed plays for the both of them. He is perhaps best known for his controversial play Doctor Faustus, and for his mysterious death at the age of 29. Little is known about Marlowe, and there are accounts that he was, among other things, a professional spy and counterfeiter.

Evidence for Authorship

According to Marlovians, the group who assert Marlowe to be the true author, the young poet did not actually die at the age of 29. Rather, he faked his own death and went on writing plays that were passed off as the work of William Shakespeare. Marlowe has long been agreed to be a major influence on the work of Shakespeare, and some believe that the similarities between their writing styles are too precise to ignore. In fact, computer analysis of Shakespeare and Marlowe’s writing has failed to find significant differences between the two. Not only would Marlowe have had the proper education and background to write Shakespeare’s plays, but Shakespeare’s first published work came no less than thirteen days after Marlowe’s supposed death. Elements of Marlowe’s life show up in countless places in Shakespeare’s plays, and many claim that hidden ciphers and anagrams within the works give hints that Marlowe is the true author. While it rests on some dubious assertions, the Marlovian theory is one of the oldest Shakespeare authorship arguments. It has even inspired a literary prize, which promises a hefty bounty to anyone who can provide hard evidence that Marlowe was Shakespeare.

2. Sir Francis Bacon

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Sir Francis Bacon was one of the first “true authors” proposed by the “Anti-Stratfordians”—the blanket term used to refer to those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship—in the 19th century. Bacon was a British writer, lawyer, politician, and philosopher who was a key figure in the scientific revolution. He was one of the major thinkers on empiricism, the branch of philosophy that asserts all knowledge is gained through the senses. His dedication to experimentation and procedural investigation led many to call him the father of the scientific method.

Evidence for Authorship

Those who believe Bacon wrote Shakespeare have pointed to everything from his personal letters to similarity in writing style, textual analysis, autobiographical similarities, and even supposed cryptographic passages hidden within the plays. Bacon was an expert on the law, and many have pointed to the many legal references in Shakespeare’s plays—references a man of Shakespeare’s education shouldn’t have known—as proof that Bacon was the true author. Most of all, Bacon was simply the preeminent thinker and writer of his day. As one scholar has suggested, “had the plays come down to us anonymously…we could have found no one of that day but Francis Bacon to whom to assign the crown.”

1. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

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The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere was a nobleman, poet, and champion jouster who spent his early life as a ward of Queen Elizabeth. He received an excellent education before serving in the House of Lords and then traveling to France and Italy. He spent most of his life as a regular fixture in the Queen’s court, but he also distinguished himself as a patron of the theater and as a lyrical poet.

Evidence For Authorship

In recent years, Edward de Vere has become the most popular candidate for being the true author of the works of Shakespeare. Not only was the Earl of Oxford often praised for his exquisite poetry and plays, but also he was deeply entrenched in the theatre scene in London. He was known for secrecy with regard to his writing—no plays written under his name have survived—which many say makes him the perfect candidate for being a “suppressed author.” “Oxfordians” point to de Vere’s travels and his position as a courtier as proof that he would have had all the reference he needed to write about nobility and royalty as they are depicted in the plays of Shakespeare. They have also studied his biography closely and found many parallels between his life in court and characters and events in Shakespeare. Since so much of the content of the plays is satirical, de Vere also had a perfect motive for wanting to remain anonymous. Some scholars have claimed that the language employed by de Vere in personal writings is remarkably similar to that of Shakespeare, and they point to a Latin grammar document referenced in Shakespeare that contains the sentence “Edwardus is my proper name” as being a possible hint from de Vere. Meanwhile, it was de Vere’s family that financed the publication of the first folio of Shakespeare’s writing in 1623. Perhaps most interesting of all, although Shakespeare lived twelve years past de Vere’s death, he remained silent on certain contemporary topics—most notably scientific breakthroughs and politics—in his later work. For Oxfordians, this suggests those plays had already been written by de Vere prior to his death.

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  1. I’ve been on numerous movie sets and have written and helped direct a number of theatre projects. While in production practically all of the narratives were written and rewritten by the troupes/casts. Most times they got better. Other times got worse as the rewriting continued en masse. Still, the person who signs the contract that says his or her name will get writing credit invariably gets the writing credit. So be it with Mr. Shakespeare. In college one of the theories was the group itself was actually called “Shake a Spear” which is what they were doing at the aristocracy.

  2. Patrick Diego on

    Some people need to be ‘in the know’ . They have a need to feel superior by virtue of their special knowledge or insight. Some are so enamored of status or royalty that they cannot imagine a common person with extraordinary talent. Marlowe faking his death is an exciting story. A Woman or a ‘secret’ royal personage is exciting as well. Personally, I find the historical William Shakespeare sufficiently supported by facts to be the author. But then, I have no problem with being a peasant, myself.

  3. This list should really just be William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, and (in a tie for first place) William Shakespeare and William Shakespeare.

  4. I think there’s a kind of “Jack the Ripper” snobbishness at work here: the Ripper HAD to be a celebratory. not some wretched, anonymous psycho low-life
    So it is that Shakespeare, a small-town boy with a perfectly good middle-class education could not possibly be, well, Shakespeare because he never went to college. True, enough, and a good thing, too — try reading some of the Highly Educated Writers of the period; the flatulent, high-flown pretentious bushwah will reduce all but the most insomniac reader to coma.

  5. Of course Shakespeare wrote his own work. All of them. The man was a true polymath. Just because some scholars have found their niche by writing controversial theories that have no practical (or provable) basis in fact, doesn’t make those theories accurate. It just keeps the “scholars” relevant. And relevance, in academia, is the name of the game. Politics, baby!

  6. William Shakespeare , by overwhelming popular acclamation , is the author of his works.

    The speculation is of no use , whatsoever.

    Accept it and move on.

  7. It’s a shame that his word is only as good as a history book. I like to think he wrote his own material. Even without standard forms of education, a genius has amazing potential. I suppose the law specific knowledge could’ve been acquired, though a definite explanation to this point eludes me. Nice list.