Friday, December 14th, 2012...9:30 am
You’ve Got Mail: Deciphering Shakespeare
The Shakespeare authorship question, now over 160 years old, continues to generate books, conferences, lectures, debates, films, websites, and even blog posts; a lot of people continue to doubt that William Shakespeare the actor actually wrote the plays attributed to him. The controversy itself has become a worthy subject of study, interesting for its longevity, for the strong emotions and uncommon engagement it elicits from all sides, and for the peculiarity of some of its manifestations. Shakespeare skeptics usually congregate around particular candidates for authorship, the current front-runner being Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). But before the Oxfordians (and others) came the Baconians, who believed that the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote the Shakespeare plays. This 1852 letter from Delia Bacon to Ralph Waldo Emerson documents a critical moment in the emergence of the Shakespeare authorship question and the Baconian movement. Although the ill-fated Delia Bacon (no relation to Francis Bacon) has often been called the first Baconian, absolute priority is difficult to establish, because questions about the authorship of the Shakespeare plays were “in the air” during the first half of the nineteenth century, stimulated by Biblical scholarship’s “Higher Criticism,” which used historical and philological approaches to question long-held assumptions about the authorship and content of the Old and New Testaments. These methods were subsequently applied to Classical texts, specifically the Homeric poems, whose authorship they called into question.
Delia Bacon (1811-1859) was a fascinating personality, a conservatively raised New England Congregationalist from a poor but very respectable and well-connected family. Her brilliant brother Leonard was able to attend Yale and became the minister of the First [Congregational] Church in New Haven. Delia received only one year of formal schooling, at Catherine Beecher’s school, then struggled through several years as a school teacher and fledgling author, enduring along the way an exceptionally well-documented and ultimately traumatic romance. Eventually, however, she established herself as a public lecturer on world history to adult audiences of both sexes, a remarkable profession for a woman at that period. During this time of activity, as early as 1845, she began to ponder authorship of the Shakespeare plays. While lecturing in Boston and Cambridge in 1850, she met and was admired by some of the most prominent women in those towns. Through the offices Elizabeth Peabody, the sister-in-law of Nathanial Hawthorne, Delia came into contact with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she addressed a letter to him outlining her Shakespearean theories.
This is Delia’s second letter to Emerson. The first, which described her theories in detail, was returned to her at her request and subsequently lost or deliberately destroyed. Although Delia ultimately came to believe that the Shakespeare plays were authored by a group of men, she here refers one author of the plays, probably Francis Bacon, although he is unnamed. Delia’s friend Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and the Morse code, had told her about Francis Bacon’s interest in and use of ciphers. In this letter, she mysteriously alludes to her discovery of a cipher embedded in the text of the plays, which serves to reveal the true identity of their author:
As to the cipher. I am sorry to say that I can not make any direct use of it, at present, for reasons which I am almost afraid to tell you, lest you should think it all a delusion. But I do not wish to make the slightest reference to it, publicly, until I have had an opportunity of testing the truth of a certain specific statement contained in it. And I live in perpetual fear, that what I have said on this subject already, may accidentally furnish a hint, for some unauthorized meddling with it.
She speculates about why such a great poet would choose to remain anonymous, hiding behind the name ‘William Shakespeare,’ yet revealing his true identity to future generations:
According to what I read in the cipher, the author does not wish or intend to give any one the trouble of translating his works for him, but prefers to speak for himself, and has made arrangements for securing that privilege to himself, ultimately, leaving to his commentators, in the interim, the most unlimited privilege of saying what they like.
But does not it seem very absurd, and quite incredible on the ordinary grounds of human action, that a man should take so much trouble to secure a fame so distant? Is it possible to form so vivid an idea of the individualities of men and women, whose great, great, grand-parents, are not yet in existence, as to be able to care in the least what they may think or say about you, especially after one has once had a chance of ascertaining, as this author had had – what the opinions and loves and admirations of those who are born? already amount to?
My idea is, that the very strongest feelings in such a mind would be, the desire to accomplish, worthily, in spite of all opposing influences, the work which such endowment, and such culture prescribed to him, and to do what he could, to leave that work behind him, in all its original proportions, unmarred by the disgraceful limitations of his time. That he would write it, not for that vague and shadowy future, and its “sweet voices”, but for the ever living present which inspired and inexorably demanded it of him, which would still live on “when all the breathers of that world were dead”, and he himself with it, in that work, so dedicated, defying time, immortal, “ever young”.
… And you know, according to my hypothesis, the ordinary ties by which men are connected with the future, were wanting in his case, and therefore on this ‘living monument’ which was to perpetuate his life on the earth, to the last syllable of recorded time, he could afford to lavish, what others spend upon the children, who are to represent them in the earth forever—what others have spent in founding houses, in which their grandeur is to be perpetuated in spite of death.
England seemed to this author on the brink of revolution already. Great political changes were inevitably at hand: — even in his own time the press might yet be free, and with those asinine ears so perpetually present [to?] his fine perceptions, and so perpetually in the way of all his activity, some means of utterance, became inevitable. And it were ‘pity of his life’ if a man who had contrived so many stage tricks in his time, “could not dig one yard below their mines and blow them at the moon.”
Emerson, who was interested in and strongly influenced by the Higher Criticism, proved receptive to Delia’s ideas, although he urged her to seek out proofs of her theories. Emerson’s interest and kindness, however, encouraged Delia in a pursuit that led to her destruction. Having secured some financial backing, she went to England in 1853 to try to prove her theories. There she met Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle, who shrieked at her ideas, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who out of kindness helped her publish her book. While in England Delia avoided libraries and archives and instead haunted the tombs of Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, convinced that she would find documentary proof of her theories buried within them. She began living in relative isolation, and within a short time she fell into poverty. The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded, by Delia Bacon, with Hawthorne’s preface, appeared in England and America in 1857. After the publication of her book, she descended into madness, and in 1859 she died in a Connecticut asylum.
Delia Bacon’s cipher was never clearly elucidated, and did not appear in her book. Its secrets died with her. But her book, in spite of its vagueness and near incoherence, or perhaps because of these qualities, somehow found its readers. Following its publication, the Baconian movement flourished and went international. Its great efflorescence lasted several decades, and was marked by repeated, ever-more-elaborate efforts to discover a cipher that would once and for all reveal Francis Bacon as the true author of the Shakespeare plays. Representative of the Baconian cipher hunters is Ignatius Donnelly, a U.S. Congressman, amateur scientist, and Baconian, whose magnum opus, The Great Cryptogram (London, 1887-1888) devotes nearly 1000 pages to the cipher problem. Reproduced here is a “Fac-simile of a page from the author’s copy of the Great Folio,” which illustrates the laborious nature of Donnelley’s researches and the intensity and dedication he brought to his labors.
Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, by James Shapiro (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) is the best place to start for anyone interested in the authorship question. Against all odds, the author manages to shed a remarkable amount of light on the subject.
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.
[Thanks to Elaine Shiner, Rare Book Cataloger, for contributing this post.]