The Hidden God1
Unfortunately, the unthinkable is always a great ally of the gullible. And so in 1795 William-Henry Ireland knew exactly what he was up to when he announced he had discovered (in addition to two new Shakespeare plays and books with Shakespeare’s own notations) a “brief account of [Shakespeare’s] life in his own hand.” One of the plays, called Vortigern—a doomed love story between a Briton king and a Saxon lady, set in the fifth century—was even staged in London before Edmond Malone, a contemporary Shakespeare scholar, damningly proved every single Ireland document to be a forgery. Ireland’s plays in no way resembled the Elizabethan style or vocabulary. But Ireland was one of the first to grasp that it is not hard to dupe a crowd that wants to be duped.
Malone is the hero of this episode in its classic telling, but Shapiro turns on Malone, castigating him for opening the Pandora’s Box that would eventually release Baconians, Oxfordians, and every Shakespeare skeptic in between. Malone was the first to try to put the plays in chronological order, publishing Attempt to Ascertain the Order in Which the Plays of Shakespeare were Written in 1778. The book made it conceivable, for the first time, to try to patch together a biography through the plays themselves. Malone did so with gusto. But by crediting this method, Shapiro argues, Malone unwittingly codified an assumption that became the first principle of the skeptics: that the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have had a life directly correlated to the events and the ideas of his plays. Amid grumbling about the coarseness of Shakespeare, a rough taxonomy of the characteristics for a more suitable candidate coalesced: “pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations, and the scent of the court.” And, as Delia Bacon would argue, Francis Bacon fit the bill to a tee.
For much of the nineteenth century the public viewed Prospero—powerful, political and philosophical, personally “aloof, bookish, a bit cold”—as the Shakespearean character who most resembled its author. Starting from this rough outline, Delia Bacon made her case for Francis Bacon (already regarded as a genius of Shakespeare’s day) based solely on her particular reading of the plays. (The two, however, were not related.) Born in 1811 to a New Haven minister, Delia Bacon was an impressive and rabidly smart woman. But the more elusive the proof for Francis Bacon proved to be, the more obvious the case seemed to Delia Bacon, and the more maniacally she argued for it. (She even considered opening Shakespeare’s grave, to determine if evidence lay inside.)