I was vaguely aware in my 20s and early 30s that a handful of people believed Francis Bacon might have been Shakespeare, but I first learned in earnest about the Shakespeare Authorship Question from the April 1999 Harper's Magazine cover story "Who Wrote Shakespeare," with five short articles by leading Stratfordians and another five by Oxfordians (proponents of the case for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford). I immediately became interested in this question, for the following main reasons: (1) I had never seen William's six extant signatures before, and was surprised that they looked so unpracticed and were all spelled differently; (2) I had never really paid attention to the contents of William's will before, and was surprised by its cold, businesslike nature -- so different from what I would have intuitively expected from the great renaissance spirit of the author of the canon; (3) I hadn't realized previously that William's parents and even his daughters either signed with a mark or were barely capable of forming their own names; and (4) I found many of the biographical parallels that could be drawn between the Earl of Oxford's life and certain episodes in Shakespeare's plays to be so strong as to be unlikely to be coincidental. (Nearly all of these arguments work as well or better for Thomas Sackville, plus other new ones -- but I didn't know that then.)
Long before this, I had loved Shakespeare's plays. My parents took me to see several productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream as a child, but my deep interest in Shakespeare was awakened after my ~1985 junior year high school English teacher showed our class the 1980 BBC production of Hamlet, with Derek Jacobi in the leading role. After that I became an undergraduate and graduate student at UC Berkeley, where I attended plays performed by the Berkeley Shakespeare Company (later the California Shakespeare Company) whenever possible. I also took an amazing class on Shakespeare from Stephen Booth, who gave me a rare A+ that was probably inspired by my essay on Romeo and Juliet titled "A Lightning Before Death," which he distributed to the class.
Although I became an authorship skeptic after reading the April 1999 Harper's articles and would have then called myself an Oxfordian, I felt uncertain about many points -- especially how to explain (1) the evidence for William Shakespeare as both an actor and a playwright from Greene's Groatsworth of Wit; (2) Francis Meres' high praise of Shakespeare's "private" sonnets, mentioned in his 1598 Palladis Tamia; (3) the problem posed by Edward de Vere's 1604 death; (4) the existence of the Stratford Monument; (5) the testimony of the First Folio; and (6) the fascinating paragraph "de Shakespeare Nostrati" from Ben Jonson's notebook, c. early 1630s.
After becoming a skeptic in 1999, I read widely on all sides of the authorship debate, including dozens of traditional biographies of William Shakespeare and all the leading books for Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, etc. The authorship question continued to exert a powerful hold on my imagination for nearly a decade because I couldn't make sense of all the different lines of argument.
This will surely sound arrogant, but around 2007 I decided to read the topical and satirical works of Shakespeare’s lesser known contemporaries (newly available to amateur scholars such as myself through internet libraries and other web-based resources) looking for clues that might help me to resolve the authorship debate--if only in my own mind, to satisfy my intense curiosity. I knew that the Elizabethan age was a heyday of pseudonymous and anonymous authorship. If Shakespeare had been a nobleman unwilling to write for the disreputable public theaters under his own name, as many authorship doubters have speculated, I was sure that William Shakespeare could not have represented the Bard’s poetry as his own without being detected by at least some members of London’s intimate literary world of the 1590s and early 1600s. Some of William’s contemporaries who knew or suspected an authorship deception would surely have alluded to the matter in their topical and satirical works, even if custom, manners, and severe censorship laws constrained them from openly revealing the author’s identity. Indeed, quite a few contemporary allusions to a major hidden Elizabethan poet (the "poet in purple robes") as well as to authorship deceptions were already known, as I discuss in The Apocryphal William Shakespeare. I wondered whether other such allusions might have been overlooked on both sides of the authorship debate. Thus, on one night in September of 2007, I began reading the prefatory verses to Edmund Spenser’s 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene with an open mind concerning the authorship question.
I was aware that Spenser had composed dedicatory sonnets to many prominent statesmen and courtiers of the time, and I wondered if any of them provided new information concerning the identity of the mysterious purple-robed poet whose power flowed far across the land, lauded by Thomas Edwards in 1593. One of Spenser’s dedicatory sonnets struck me as surprising: his tribute to “the Lord of Buckhurst, one of her Majesty’s Privy Council.” I had never heard of Lord Buckhurst, but Spenser praised his “golden verse,” “lofty numbers,” and “heroic style.” Spenser even declared that Buckhurst was “much more fit” than he to write a work such asThe Faerie Queen, had Buckhurst the leisure to do so. Spenser added that Buckhurst’s “dainty pen” could file the “gross defaults” of his own work, the product of a “baser wit.” While Spenser was not above ingratiating himself to the powerful, it seemed to me that he sincerely considered Buckhurst/Sackville to be a superior poet. I decided to learn more about the intriguing Sackville. Although Spenser did not at all imply that Sackville was secretly authoring poetic works in 1590, I found his praise consistent with the possibility that Sackville had begun presenting his works under William of Stratford’s name in the early 1590s.
After reading Sackville's poetry, I was struck by the echoes between Gorboduc and King Lear, and between The Complaint of Henry Duke of Buckingham and Richard III. I was also fascinated by implications of the recently discovered poem Sacvyle's Olde Age, first published in 1989. Based on Sackville's deep devotion to poetry as conveyed in this poem, I felt strongly that Sackville loved poetry so much that he probably wasn't capable of abandoning it, even though he declares his intention to switch from frivolous poetry to devotional poetry at its end. Even if he wasn't "supposed" to write poetry as a Privy Councilor and later Lord Treasurer, I thought he wouldn't have been able to help himself.
Another point that weighed strongly in my mind is that a new theory should be judged not only by its explanatory power but also by its ability to make accurate predictions. If Sackville wrote Shakespeare’s works, certain things should be true about him. While researching Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper, I made dozens of tentative predictions to myself about Sackville. I used these to guide my course of reading beyond the limited biographical material available on Sackville’s life. In each case, when evidence was available, my speculations were borne out by further research. For example, after conjecturing that Sackville had attended the 1575 Kenilworth festivities alluded to in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I discovered his name on a list of attendees. I also suspected that Sackville had been lamed at some point in his life, because in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the author refers to himself as ‘lame.’ While it is possible that he meant this in a metaphorical sense, the allusion seems to refer to an actual physical condition. Eventually, I found a passage in one of his 1587 letters, posted at British History Online, which mentioned that he had recently been lamed after a horse kicked him in the leg. As another example, after I learned from Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World that Shakespeare may have alluded to the 1605 reception of King James at Oxford University in Macbeth, I was able to establish that Sackville hosted this reception as Chancellor of Oxford. Finally, I felt certain that Sackville and Jonson had been friends. However, for many months I was unable to uncover evidence of this. Eventually I typed the combination “Lord Treasurer” and “Ben Jonson” into a Google search bar, and discovered that after Jonson was released from prison in early 1605, where he had been confined for co-authoring a controversial play, Sackville gave him a dozen cases of palm sack wine in a show of support. Shortly after, Jonson co-dedicated his play Volpone to Sackville as Chancellor of Oxford University.
Long after I had satisfied myself that Thomas Sackville had the lifespan, experiences, habits of mind, and poetic ability to write Shakespeare’s works, I remained puzzled about what William Shakespeare’s role might have been in an authorship deception. To overturn the long-established belief that William wrote Shakespeare’s works, I knew that I must present not only a plausible author but a satisfactory explanation for why an authorship deception occurred and how it was successfully concealed. My breakthrough came after I read a recently scholarly edition of The Taming of A Shrew. Based on the strange nature of this play, I formulated the hypothesis that William was a popular but unscrupulous actor-playwright whose first dramatic efforts were enjoyably silly adaptations of dated works from his company’s repertoire. I soon found strong grounds for assigning to him many of the Shakespeare ‘apocrypha’ and partial authorship of the ‘bad quartos.'
One of the most thrilling aspects of working on these books was the way in which evidence for the Sackville theory piled up once I had an idea of what to look for, just as a microscope that has been properly focused reveals a previously unsuspected wealth of detail. For example, I knew that before the London writer Robert Greene died in extreme poverty in 1592, he wrote a pamphlet warning other playwrights that the player-playwright William Shakespeare was an “upstart crow” beautified with others' feathers. After it occurred to me to take Greene’s words at face value, I realized that a logical explanation for why he apparently accused William of stealing verbal feathers from other playwrights in 1592 could be that William had recently written a play that blatantly plagiarized from Greene’s works. Incredibly (to me), the first play published under the initials ‘W.S.’ was not one of Shakespeare’s plays – it was the shoddy work Locrine, thought to have been composed in the early 1590s, and first published in 1595. The author of Locrine borrowed so extensively from Greene’s writings that the scholar Tucker Brooke was convinced Greene must have authored the play: “How continually in Locrine we find Greene's favourite epithets, phrases, and classical divinities forcing themselves uncalled for into the lines” (The Shakespeare Apocrypha, 1908).
I know that the question of who really wrote Shakespeare's works will probably always remain either settled in scholars' minds, or remain an open question due to the ambiguous nature of the available evidence. But I can't help but hope that the arguments made in my two books -- The Apocryphal William Shakespeare, and Thomas Sackville and the Shakespearean Glass Slipper -- will someday become more widely known. Most fundamentally, I am pretty sure that Shakespeare scholars haven't fully appreciated Sackville's influence on Shakespeare's art, even if William of Stratford wrote the canon. And I also don't think they're aware of the big chronological and authorship problems they face with explaining plays such as The Taming of a Shrew and The Troublesome Reign of King John.