Delia Bacon, the writer who proposed the first theory about Shakespeare’s true identity

The debate about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is not recent; it began about a century and a half after his death, when Herbert Lawrence suggested it in 1771, and it has continued ever since, with people like the famous poets John Milton and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the historian J. Thomas Looney or the journalist Charlton Ogburn. This group of revisionists included a woman, an American writer of plays and stories who was self-taught and became known as the first to develop a theory on the subject. Her name was Delia Salter Bacon.

Edgar Allan Poe in 1849/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Delia was born in 1811 in Talimadge, Ohio, where her father had moved from New Haven following a vision; the father was a congregationalist pastor who would die soon after, perhaps depressed at having to return without having achieved anything. The widow and her six children were left homeless and the family’s friends had to take care of the children’s education. Delia, a weak young woman who fell ill with malaria and cholera, and who has carried the consequences all her life, was lucky enough to attend the school of Catherine Beecher, the sister of Harriet Beecher (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), an educator and advocate for equality between women and men (although she was anti-souphragist in believing that if they stayed out of the political turmoil they would be more useful to society).

This is how, from school to school for almost four decades, Delia gained a wealth of experience that allowed her to develop her own teaching methods, becoming a respected teaching professional. In between, she also proved to be a good writer, as she published her first book in 1831, at the age of only twenty. It was entitled Tales of the Puritans, although because of the prejudices of her time, she was unable to sign it and it had to be published anonymously. She was not bad with a pen, of course, since the following year she entered a short story contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier newspaper and won by beating one Edgar Allan Poe.

Her move to New York in 1836 allowed her to go often to the theater, which fascinated her so much that she put aside her stories to write dramas. The first, entitled The Bride of Fort Edward, was in the format of a blank verse, that is, with regular metrics but without rhyme, something very common in English literature in general and in Shakespearean literature in particular. She even convinced a famous actress whom she befriended to take on the leading role and perform the play, but it was not to be: Delia’s health problems prevented her from promoting herself, and her own brother discouraged her from doing so because he thought the play was bad. It was published in 1839 but, once again, anonymously. The irony is that it got good reviews, among them Poe’s, which was not enough to prevent it from being a sales failure.

To recover from the displeasure, in 1846 she went to the land of her childhood, New Haven, where she began a love affair with Alexander MacWorther, a prestigious Yale graduate theologian who taught metaphysics and English literature at the University of Troy. MacWorther had already caused a scandal by supporting the book Truth Stranger than Fiction, written by the aforementioned Catherine Beecher. But his living with Delia without being married came to the attention of Leonard, her wealthy brother, who was a Congregational minister and denounced MacWorther. After a church trial before his community, he was acquitted with a mere reprimand, but under pressure from public opinion, in which only Catherine Beecher defended him, he had to end his relationship with Delia and leave New Haven.

Thomas Carlyle in 1860/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Delia was influenced intellectually by MacWorther, and from then on she became particularly interested in Shakespeare’s work, diving into extensive research on the English poet and even making a trip to England in search of sources. It was in 1853 and she had the opportunity to meet personally Thomas Carlyle: philosopher, mathematician, historian and writer, anti-Semite and defender of slavery (or, failing that, of servitude), he was the author of the so-called Theory of the Great Man (the great characters are those who determine the course of history) and he firmly defended the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over the others. Carlyle was pleasantly surprised by the manuscript Delia showed him.

It was entitled The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded and followed the fashion of the time of what was known as higher criticism or historical-critical method, the investigation of the origin of ancient texts. It is true that this method focused mainly on the Bible and the Torah, with the aim of proving their multiple authorship, but also the works of Homer and others were subjected to this analysis. And since that second half of the 19th century coincided with the emergence of bardolatry, that is, the blind worship of William Shakespeare (nicknamed the Bard since the previous century) denounced by Bernard Shaw, (in fact, he created the term), along with the exaltation of the philosopher Francis Bacon, Delia’s work did not remain immune to it.

She believed she saw in Shakespeare’s literary production authentic lessons in philosophy designed for the privileged classes, something that fitted badly with the popular fervor that Shakespeare’s theater aroused. Therefore, she concluded that this poorly trained actor who became a playwright would only have put his name to what was actually written by a group of geniuses who preferred to remain anonymous. Who and why? Well, for example, the aforementioned Francis Bacon, a lawyer, politician and philosopher, father of empiricism, whose name had the same number of letters as the Bard’s and who wrote a play, The comedy of errors, suspiciously similar to The Tempest (which is a later work), apart from other indications. Also at the heart of it would be Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund C. Spencer, who aspired to instill in English society a whole philosophical system that they could not officially assume.

Anonymous portrait of Sir Francis Bacon/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It was the case that all three were outstanding poets and that Bacon handled the cipher codes skillfully, as Samuel Morse explained to Delia (they were friends). They would have been joined by Thomas Sackville (who besides being a statesman also had a remarkable literary career) and Edward de Vere (a courtier model and who excelled in both poetry and theater, although none of his works has been preserved); the latter had extra reasons for his rebelliousness, since he flirted with Catholicism. Delia described them as a small clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who pledged to lead and organize the popular opposition against the government, and were forced to withdraw from that enterprise (…) Expelled from the open ground, they fought in secret. She was referring to an alleged attempt to fight against the despotism of Elizabeth I and her successor James I in a Republican key.

Edward de Vere, Count of Oxford (anonymous)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The circumstances that surely influenced the writer do not go unnoticed: not only had she had to publish without her name several times, but she had just come out of a stentorous sentimental break that led her to move away from the Congregationalist faith, which some interpret as the spark for her thesis, since, consciously or subconsciously, she would be trying to debunk the myths of the Puritans who founded the United States from England. So, as expected, she had opinions for and against.

Among the first was that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Boston philosopher, poet and essayist with whom she had become friends years earlier through the sister-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne (the author of The Scarlet Letter) and who, despite some skepticism towards her theory, helped her to publish The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded in 1856, in Putnam magazine, because he considered that American literature at that time had only two worthy names: One was Walt Whitman and the other Delia Bacon (by the way, both good friends too, even though he, too, had his doubts about her work).

Among the detractors was New Yorker Richard Grant White, a literary critic and staunch defender of Shakespeare, about whom he wrote several studies devoting part of his attention to the identity question in Essay on the Authorship of the Three Parts of Henry VI.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Delia Bacon became obsessed with the subject but never consulted primary sources or researched extensively, as Carlyle recommended. She wrote and wrote taking as her only proof the absence of data on Shakespeare’s life, as if that were enough to constitute a certainty. Putnam magazine mistrusted her mental balance and withdrew its financial support, leaving her in a difficult situation from which Nathaniel Hawthorne, then Consul in London, had to remove her. The writer also offered to write her a prologue to the book, but he made it clear that he was skeptical about it and she withdrew her word forever (yet, in a gesture of honor, Hawthorne took on her debts and always spoke well of her).

Delia, in fact, bordered on insanity with her obsession. She visited Shakespeare’s tomb at night in the hope of opening it in search of secret documents, just as she had requested – in vain, of course – that Francis Bacon’s be opened. When she was finally able to publish her book, she received the applause of writers such as Mark Twain, Henry James and Walt Whitman, some of whom came to believe in what she was saying. Unfortunately, it was a commercial failure and Delia, who did not fit in well with the critics -they affected her to the point of disease- was once again left prostrate. It would be the definitive one, as she died in 1859; young, with only forty-eight years of age.

Nathaniel Hawthorne/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

She did not live long enough to see what happened to her hypothesis about Shakespeare but other authors took up the baton, each proposing an identity for the English playwright: although Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere were still in the pool, others were added such as Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher and John Donne. Of course, the list of dissenters also grew and today they are in the majority. In any case, that debate grew as Delia was ignored and forgotten, when not taken by an eccentric half-wit. Hawthorne’s epitaph was tight enough: No author was as confidently hopeful as she was; none had ever failed so completely.


Sources

The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded (Delia Salter Bacon/Delia Bacon, the woman who hated Shakespeare (Elizabeth Kerri Mahon en Scandalous Women)/The Shakespeare Controversy. An analysis of the authorship theories (Warren Hope y Kim Holston)/Shakespeare beyond doubt. Evidence, argument, controversy (Paul Edmondson y Stanley Wells)/Women reading Shakespeare, 1660-1900. An anthology of criticism (Ann Thompson y Sasha Roberts, eds)/Wikipedia