Although most scholars agree that Shakespeare was hands down the most inspirational and influential literary figures in history, a select few conspiracy theorists claim the he never placed pen to paper—and his name was simply stolen for credit on a wide variety of amazing plays and sonnets.  

What Scholars Know About Shakespeare For Sure

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There are a few things scholars believe they know about Shakespeare for sure. He was born in England presumably on April 23, 1564. Many believe he was educated in the King's school in Stratford (but didn't go to college), and was the son of an alderman. In 1585, he married a woman named Anne Hathaway, and had three children, including a son named Hamlet who died as an infant. Once the late 1500s rolled around, he was acting and churning out classic plays like "Romeo and Juliet," "Comedy of Errors," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Much Ado About Nothing." If fact, by the 1600s, he had written almost 17 plays altogether.

Alternative Theories About Shakespeare's Identity

While Shakespeare's history seems pretty cut and dry, academics like James Shapiro have written books questioning whether Shakespeare was a real person or not. Although Shapiro originally wrote his book as a joke, the points he made coincidently meandered their way into the canon and people really started questioning how the lowly, uneducated son of a commoner could write about the world with such authority? Aside from Shapiro, other people who have questioned Shakespeare's identity include Mark Twain, novelist Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Malcolm X, and even Hellen Keller. In 2011, a film titled Anonymous came out doubting Shakespeare's authorship, and serious doubters even banned together to form The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition.

Was Queen Elizabeth I The Real Bard?

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So, if these doubters claim Shakespeare didn't write his plays, then who did? Perhaps one of the craziest suggestions is Queen Elizabeth I. Those who argue the brilliant Queen wrote the plays claim that she was one of the sharpest minds of her time, was incredibly literate, and was known to have a wild imagination. As a young woman, she had plenty of experiences with jealousy, betrayal, and poorly timed romances that would have been wonderful fodder for the stage. However, critics claim there is no way she would've actually had the time to write so many works of art, but she was known to take time to write her own poetry.

Advancing The Tudor Dynasty

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One of the most common claims critics make about Shakespeare is that he was from a much more lower class than the characters he wrote about. Presumably, he wouldn't have known about many of the customs and experiences that members of the upper class dealt with, and yet he was able to write about them accurately and eloquently. Additionally, if one were to make a case for Elizabeth I being Shakespeare, one might point out that many of his plays were obvious promotion for the Tudor dynasty. On the flip side though, he could have desired to be in her good graces and wrote the material to honor his Queen. Also, the most obvious thorn in the theory resides in the fact that Queen Elizabeth I died before many of Shakespeare's plays were created.

Sir Fulke Greville

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Another person some consider a candidate for the Shakespeare title is Sir Fulke Greville. Greville was a noble and politician, who spent a considerable amount of time in Queen Elizabeth's court, and served England as both a judge and a spy. Additionally, Greville was known to love both poetry and drama, and was thought to be a very talented writer. In his biography, there is a line that states, he wanted "to be known to posterity under no other notions than of Shakespeare's master." This statement has caused academics to question whether he could be the true author of Shakespeare's work. Additionally, critics claim he could have gained a lot of knowledge about the world and politics while working and traveling as a spy.

Edward de Vere

There's no doubt Edward de Vere is one of the most popular suggestions for an alternative author to Shakespeare's plays. De Vere was the 17th Earl of Oxford, and was a champion jouster and poet, who spent considerable amounts of time amongst the Royals. He had a top notch education and traveled all around romantic cities in France and Italy in his youth. He was known as a lyric poet and devout patron of the theatre. These characteristics seem to make him a good candidate for "the real Shakespeare." Although he was known to have authored several plays under his own name, he apparently didn't publish them because they were autobiographical and he thought they might get him in trouble. This is something many scholars point to when arguing that he would've used the Shakespeare pen name to put out controversial works.

Sir Francis Bacon

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Overall doubt about Shakespeare's existence is nothing new. In the 19th century, a group known as the Anti-Stratfordians claimed that Shakespeare was actually the pen name for a brilliant author, Sir Francis Bacon. Amongst other things, Bacon was a renowned philosopher and scientist, who is considered to be the father of the scientific method. The Anti-Stratfordians made several claims about his authorship of Shakespeare's plays after analyzing both authors writing style and biographies, and even claim that Bacon's expert legal knowledge would have allowed him to construct Shakespeare's complex plots.

Christopher Marlowe

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During his time, Christopher Marlowe was actually just as highly regarded by the public as Shakespeare was. One of his best plays was a drama called "Doctor Faustus," and although little is known about his personal life, some believe he was actually a scandalous counterfeiter, spy, and the true author of Shakespeare's best plays. One interesting theory some have brought up draws on the fact that Marlowe mysteriously died at age 29. According to conspiracy theorists, Marlowe may have faked his own death to devote all of his time to writing plays as Shakespeare. Additionally, there are supposedly ciphers and anagrams hidden in the work that hint towards Marlow being the true author.

Emilia Lanier

Many candidates that Shakespeare critics speculate on are women, and it's pretty obvious why a woman of Shakespeare's time would need a pen name. Emilia Lanier is perhaps one of the most famous candidates on this list, considering she had a very scandalous life as Queen Elizabeth I's cousin's mistress. Few details are known about her life, but she is considered to be one of the first female professional poets in England. She openly gushed about Shakespeare's sonnets, and at one time was thought to be the direct inspiration for the sexy "Dark Lady" poems. On a larger scale, some believe she wrote all of Shakespeare's plays as a select few unique clusters of words appear both in her poetry and in plays like "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby


Like many others on this list, William Stanley was a member of English nobility and severed as the 6th Earl of Derby until he died in 1642. Evidence of his authorship includes the fact that he traveled around Europe and had an extensive knowledge of European history, and was known to spend most of his free time writing plays. Some of Shakespeare's plays, like "Love's Labour's Lost" have been attributed to Stanley by some because it contains so much insider information about French and English court. Additionally, Stanley was known to be real-life friends with the man who inspired the character Prospero in the Shakespeare play "The Tempest." Critics who believe Stanley was the true author of the plays think he used Shakespeare as a front man to produce the plays without any retribution.

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess Of Pembroke

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Another female contender for the role of The Bard was a woman named Mary Sidney Herbert. Herbert was the Countess of Pembroke, and between 1500 and 1600 she was considered one of the most educated women in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth herself. Herbert was known for her creativity and writing skills, but at the time she lived she wasn't allowed to publish her work. Some scholars believe her work was actually the original basis for Shakespeare's work like "Antony and Cleopatra" and "The Tragedy of Antonie." Shakespeare conspiracy theorists, of course, take that notion to the next level and claim she may have written all of his works, and used his name to get published.

Sir Henry Neville

While most so-called replacements for Shakespeare have similar biographies to The Bard, Sir Henry Neville's biography is almost identical aside from the fact he was educated at Oxford and spent a lot of time traveling Europe. He was a talented writer, no doubt, and both he and Shakespeare had a similar writing style. Historians even found a document of Neville's that contains the signature of "William Shakespeare" written over and over, as if he was practicing it. Is it possible he was the true Shakespeare, or tried to take credit for his work somehow?

Exploring The Group Theory

If Shakespeare weren't real, perhaps one of the most plausible theories about his true identity would involve a collection of artists that pooled their creative talents and knowledge about the English upper class together. The amazing breadth of Shakespeare's work could be explained away with theories that claim a large group of writers and poets used the pen name to create a body of work that was larger than all of them individually.